There’s a famous scene in Spitting Image, ITV’s now expired satirical puppet show, parodying Neil Kinnock’s 1987 election broadcast. “Nurses, nurses, teachers, nurses!” the puppet Kinnock blasts into the loudspeaker. “Old people, black people, yellow people, nurses!” The Labour leader was portrayed as an excitable iconoclast carried away by the chaotic passion of his own rhetoric.
Were Spitting Image still going, I daresay the show would have caricatured George Galloway – the Respect MP for Bradford – in much the same manner. His buzzwords are different of course: “murder”, “imperialism” and “Bush-Blair” were deployed indiscriminately throughout his speech last week at the Oxford Union.
His elected topic, ‘The World At War’, was a safe one. Though accusations of demagoguery and misogyny have ruptured his relationship with the Left, the undeniable doggedness which he brings to the anti-war movement still earns him their grudging respect.
By the time we sit down Galloway has been at it for over an hour, and an hour of bellowing acoustics, thrusting gesticulation and fierce mental awareness would incapacitate most politicians. He has visited the Union before, on one occasion, in 1988, as a guest of the then-President Michael Gove. “We became friends,” Galloway recounts with a surprising warmth. Though both hail from modest Scottish backgrounds, such a friendship still seems peculiar.
It should be remembered that Galloway has some experience of cosying up to people with whom – ostensibly at least – he does not agree. Infamously in 1994 he lauded Saddam Hussein for his “courage, strength and indefatigability”. Less than a decade later, as the courageous Iraqi dictator hid in a hole near Tikrit, Galloway led the anti-war movement back home, calling for British soldiers to “refuse to obey illegal orders”. Once this had prompted his expulsion from the Labour Party, he began clamouring for Tony Blair’s extradition to the Hague for “war crimes”. He repeats the demand in our interview, referring to the “indictment I carry in my briefcase” and promising to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the former PM if they ever find each other in the same room.
“I haven’t made any substantial political errors,” Galloway retorts, after I suggest that these sorts of serial mishaps undermine his credibility as a politician. He does, however, confess to errors “of phrasing and words”. The distinction is an odd one to make, given that his recent guide to the “sex game” provoked the resignation of Salma Yaqoob, Respect’s leader. Galloway seems sincere when he says “we’re very sorry that she’s left”, but sees the subsequent media storm as essentially poppycock: “When someone leaves us, they are invested with such an importance, an importance which they were never given when they were with us.”
But why does he never apologise for his bouts of verbal flatulence? “Not true, simply not true, you haven’t done your research as well as you thought you had,” he counters. When I asked for an example of a public apology he had made, he shrewdly declined: “It wouldn’t profit me to go through my list of regrets.” But it might profit me of course, so I went and did some homework.
And it turns out he has recently apologised to a tweeter whom – in the heat of an online ar- gument in August – Galloway branded a “window-licker”, a derogatory term for the mentally handicapped. His apology was limp and equivocating, but still it was remarkable that he made one at all. Perhaps the relaxations of a honeymoon in Indonesia with his fourth wife have evinced a softer side.
But will he apologise over his rape comments? “No.” He believes that “Julian Assange has been set up. The allegations against him… are entirely bogus.” The problem is that for Galloway to accept that the allegations constitute rape, he could no longer be so sure of the conspiracy he has built up around WikiLeaks. Without irony, he concluded an answer on the topic to a PhD student, Nicole, with this diatribe: “Trust me on this, sister, the day will come when you’ll be embarrassed to have asked me that question because you’ll know what you don’t know now. I’ll forgive you for not knowing it.” Needless to say Nicole was less than impressed by this generous gesture.
It is well known that Galloway holds himself in high regard. There’s a story in Chris Mullin’s new diary that is fast becoming legend in Westminster. During a parliamentary visit to Vietnam, Mullin recounts a special meal laid on for the delegation: “Almost everyone at the table had lost a member of his family. One had lost four brothers. This didn’t stop George regaling them with tales of ‘my first injury in the struggle’, which turned out to be a kick he received from a police horse during the 1968 anti-war demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.” The following day, at another meeting, “George again regaled the assembly with tales of his long service to socialism. The district chairman, a canny old boy, listened politely when George again referred to his ‘first injury in the struggle’. Then, without batting an eyelid he inquired: ‘And what was your second?’”
Galloway’s antagonists will variably tell you that he isan egotist, a conspiracy theorist, a hypocrite, a dictator-loving sycophant, and a rather nasty bigot. These criticisms undoubtedly sully his reputation, but they also energise the vocal minority, who – as Galloway never tires of remind- ing me – have “elected me to the British Parliament six times”, most recently in the “Bradford Spring” that liberated the oppressed peoples of West Yorkshire earlier this year.
Another slightly peculiar boast is his presence on “alternative” media. Specifically he is tagged in “over 12,000 videos on YouTube”. That’s funny, because barely eight weeks previously, Galloway had spoken on his ‘Molucca Red’ channel of a mere “11,800 videos, the last time I checked.” He obviously keeps a close tab. It seems that Galloway’s globetrotting schedule, hopping from Venezuela to Kazakhstan in the week before we met, doesn’t stop him cultivating the cyber-vanity of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. One thinks it’s beneath him, until you remember that this is the same George Galloway who let Channel 4 film him licking milk out of the hands of one of his fellow Big Brother housemates.
At the St Stephen’s Gate Entrance to Parliament stands a statue of Charles James Fox, the Whig MP ejected twice for treacherously supporting the American minutemen and, later, the French revolutionaries. For a time Fox cast a lonely figure with a lot to say but few sympathetic enough to hear it. Vindication by history saved his reputation. Galloway – who has evoked Fox on multiple occasions – is acutely conscious of the opprobrium poured on him by the British media and political establishment: “I don’t ask anyone to love me. I am what I am.”
George Galloway similarly believes himself to be on the right side of history. On that count the Left would be unwise to write him off just yet. But the danger for him now lies in becoming a punchline for all jokes of a sordid and hypocritical nature. Posterity nearly always forgives outcasts, but it very rarely remembers charlatans.