- 02 Nov 05
Bloodied but unbowed by press smears, Scottish socialist firebrand George Galloway is one of the most vocal anti-war politicians in Britian. In a characteristically frank interview he discusses Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Resepect, and why Shannon could be considered a terrorist target.
The Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq has attracted many critics, but none as committed or passionate as ‘Gorgeous George’ Galloway. A firebrand Scot, long noted for his unapologetic espousal of socialist principles, Galloway has been a thorn in the side of successive centrist Labour Party leaderships from the moment of his accession to Parliament in 1987. As the Labour left became quieter, Galloway became progressively more outspoken in relation to British foreign policy, attracting controversy in 1994 when statements he made in a meeting with Saddam Hussein were construed as declarations of support for the tyrant. The irony was not lost on Galloway, who had been attempting to draw attention to the shameful human rights record of the Saddam regime in the House of Commons since the 1980s.
Galloway was eventually expelled from the Labour Party in 2003, following a withering verbal attack on Tony Blair and George Bush. He once described the latter as a ‘wolf’, then withdrew the remark on the grounds that it defamed wolves. In June of this year, in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, he outlined his position in the clearest possible terms: “Bush, Blair and Berlusconi are criminals. They are responsible for mass murder, for the war, for the occupation of Iraq, through their support of Israel, and through their support for a globalised capitalist economic system, which is the biggest killer the world has ever known. It has killed far more people than Adolf Hitler. They are the real rogue states, breaking international law, invading other people’s countries.”
With fighting talk like that, it’s small wonder Galloway has found himself on the receiving end of the White House’s wrath. A highly articulate orator, the MP has repeatedly been the subject of corruption smears (see panel). The most notable of these occurred in May of this year, when the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations accused Galloway of having received the right to buy 20 million barrels of oil under the UN’s oil-for-food programme. Galloway promptly went to the US and faced the Senate in an attempt to clear his name. Under oath, he dismissed the veracity of the documents implicating him, and launched into an astonishing and brilliantly potent 45-minute broadside against the USA’s involvement in Iraq.
Since his expulsion from Labour, he has devoted his time and attention to a new political movement named Respect, and contested the 2005 general election on a socialist, anti-war platform. He won the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, defeating the sitting pro-war Labour MP Oona King, and in a typically fiery acceptance speech, declared that Prime Minister Tony Blair had “the blood of 100,000 people on his hands.”
Craig Fitzsimons: It’s widely assumed that Gordon Brown is likely to replace Blair in No.10 Downing Street within the next year or two. Do you think that a Brown administration will differ from Blair’s in any significant respect?
George Galloway: “I don’t think it’ll be the next year or two, I think it’ll take longer. But when it does it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, you couldn’t slip a sixpence between them politically. Having known Gordon Brown very well for the best part of 30 years, I can honestly say that Gordon Brown is Tony Blair with the interesting bits taken out – he’s Blair without the laughs.”
Was there ever a time when you considered Brown a genuine socialist?
“No. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never respected his politics, but let me be clear, I respect his intellect and character and his personal decency. He’s clearly a better person than Blair is, but politically, he’s just as pro-America, he’s just as committed to neo-liberal economic policies and neo-imperialist foreign policies. He’s just as committed to the privatisation agenda. He was the architect of the part-privatisation of the London Underground. He’s fully behind these PFI schemes in our hospitals and so on, which are mortgaging our public services for the future. He goes to the United States every year for his holidays. He doesn’t even share the fake pro-Europeanism of Blair; he’s an overt Eurosceptic, and I suppose in many respects he would be politically worse than Blair. Even on civil liberties, New Labour is defined by its authoritarianism.”
More so than the Thatcher and Major governments?
“They do things that Thatcher wouldn’t have dared to do. When I saw that old fellow being dragged out of the Labour conference – an 82-year-old man – for the crime of shouting ‘Nonsense’, being treated as if he was a huge threat to national security, it struck me as like a scene from Nurenberg. It told you everything you needed to know about New Labour.”
The Sunday Times ran a story about your marriage four days before polling day. Did the timing strike you as suspicious?
“The whole thing, including the series of calls my wife had been receiving, was very suspicious, and I still haven’t got to the bottom of it. I’ve no idea who was behind it, I assume a shadowy intelligence service. Was that a click you just heard on the phone?”
And the ‘Oil For Food’ scandal, where you were accused of personally profiting from oil deals in Iraq: where did that spring from?
“The sewer was the Iraqi opposition as was, Ahmed Chalabi and his friends – but who prepared the sewage is another matter, and I’m legally not yet in a position to comment.”
If you met US Senator Norm Coleman (who circulated a dossier around the world tenuously linking Galloway to oil profiteering), what would you say?
“I would like to meet him. In fact, I’d like to challenge him to a public debate in his constituency in Minnesota. Hundreds and hundreds of people from Minnesota have written to me, asking me to do everything in my power to get him out. He took the seat of the best senator in the United States, Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash about two weeks before the election. He was the only Senator to vote against the war, and then he was killed mysteriously in a plane crash. So this guy Coleman beat a dead man, and he’s profoundly unpopular. The fact that he was once a Democrat and is now a right-wing neo-con hawk makes people very concerned.”
Watching the video of that witch trial (Galloway’s subsequent appearance before the US Senate sub-committee), I couldn’t believe that anyone purporting to be a lawyer would be so unprofessional, hostile and rude.
“The whole process was a travesty of justice. I knew standards had slipped in Washington over the last few years, but this went beyond the realms of the ridiculous. I once described the man as a would demur. He’s probably proud of the fact he licks the spittle of George W. Bush.”
What punishment would you deem appropriate for the torturers of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?
“You’ll never hear me blaming individual soldiers or individual intelligence men. I believe the political leaders who sent them into this war are the ones who have to take the responsibility. This is the dynamic of occupation – if you occupy another person’s country, it’s because you’re superior to them, and if you’re superior to them, you have the right to treat them as inferiors and sub-humans. That’s what leads to the degradation we saw in the British occupation of Ireland, the American occupation of Vietnam, and now in the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. It’s the end point of all occupations. The only good thing was that people found out it had happened. Despite the Fog of War propaganda and the disinformation blizzard that is Fox News and so on, somehow, miraculously, the American people have found ways to access the truth. The Washington Post, when I was there, ran a poll which showed that 58% of Americans wanted the soldiers home by Christmas, 65% thought the war should never have been fought in the first place, and 80% believed the war could not be won. These are stunning statistics in a country so dominated by right-wing media. What all this tells me is that Americans are not relying on the corporate media – they rely on word of mouth, the underground, the internet, radio and their own common sense. If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it probably is a duck.”
Growing up, were you acquainted with the works of James Connolly?
“Not only that, but I lived in the same street as James Connolly once did – St. Mary’s Lane in Dundee. I’m a great admirer of James Connolly.”
Peter Mullan is making a movie about his life.
“Aww, brilliant. That’s the best news I’ve heard today. I’ll look forward to it. Excellent.”
In the Irish context, is the Connolly vision of a 32-county socialist republic a pipe-dream?
“Well, the socialist part of it might be a pipe-dream for the moment. But the 32-county republic is, I think, where we’re headed. The idea that Paisley can still go on saying ‘no’ is not something that’s credible on either side of the Irish Sea. I sit in front of him now in the House of Commons, and I’ve no doubt that he’ll keep roaring ‘no’ for as long as he lives, but I don’t think that either government can accede to that kind of veto indefinitely. So my prediction would be that within my lifetime, and I’m 51, there will be a United Ireland, and who knows, maybe Gerry Adams will be the President of it. The unionist veto always was utterly undemocratic in both the British and Irish contexts, where a clear majority of British people and a clear majority of Irish people opposed it. The British ceased to have a selfish reason for remaining in the Six Counties long ago, and now the picture of so-called Unionism is not one they find appetising.”
Like many Scots, you define your background as Irish Catholic. Are you still a practicing Roman Catholic?
“Well… (uncharacteristically long pause) I don’t go to mass, but I’m still a believer.”
You’re opposed to the general liberal ‘pro-choice’ consensus on abortion. Is that a religious stance?
“In all honesty, it may have started out as one. But it’s now a straightforward moral and scientific position. Life begins at conception; there is no other point on the continuum when it can be said to have begun, other than birth. And if life begins at conception, then certain human rights are attached to that proposition. These truths are self-evident: no person should be subject to summary execution on the grounds of expediency, convenience, economic considerations, whatever factors are behind the decision. I don’t believe it can be morally defended for a second: it’s the ultimate capitalist policy. I know that a lot of people – who would once have been horrified to hear me say what I’ve just said – are now coming around to my position. I’m not proposing to scrap Britain’s abortion laws, but I will vote to reduce the upper level of weeks. I cannot see that anyone in conscience could accept abortion at 28 weeks, when children can be born alive at 28 weeks. That’s so repugnant as to be beyond comment.”
Your politics are largely informed by an internationalist perspective, whether it be Cuba, Iraq or Palestine…
“It was by chance that that developed, stemming from the Vietnam war which raged during my teens, and has been re-enacted since then endlessly. There is great injustice in Britain, there was greater injustice in Northern Ireland, but the magnitude of human suffering that takes place elsewhere on the globe is so immense that it’s tended to command my attention. I don’t dispute that.”
What’s your evaluation of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez?
“I met him in New York a couple of weeks ago, and he invited me to visit Venezuela, which I will do. I’m a very great admirer of his; he’s changed the entire paradigm of Latin American politics, as profoundly as Castro or Guevara. Things are really rolling in Latin America as a result: Latin America, and the Middle East are the likeliest centres of world progressive revolution in 2005. There’s huge change happening now, not only in Venezuela and Cuba, but in Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile – everything is moving in a progressive direction. The Colombian masses have not been cowed by the brutal regime under which they live, or by the American support for it, or the death squads. Latin America contains a lot of hope for the world. I see that Bush has sent an envoy to Nicaragua because he’s becoming concerned about the possibility of a Sandinista comeback.”
It’s understood that elected Irish politicians have been warned over dinner by US foreign-policy spooks that they are “concerned about our UN voting record”, as if this were any of their business.
“Well, this begs several questions about how independent the Irish Republic is. The notion that the Irish Republic is neutral in the war with Iraq is absurd. Shannon Airport is used to facilitate thousands of occupation soldiers every day, and I’ve said to Bertie Ahern personally that whoever he thinks he’s fooling, he certainly hasn’t fooled the people of the Middle East.”
Is it conceivable that Shannon could become a target for Al-Qa’ida?
“Put it this way, it’s very widely known that Shannon occupies an integral place in the war machine. God forbid that there should be any such action on Irish soil. But the idea that anyone has been fooled by Bertie’s profession of neutrality is completely foolhardy.”
Talking to socialists of an older vintage, back in the ‘60s or even the ‘80s, people believed they had the power to effect change. Post-1989, huge swathes of people just gave up, and apathy took over.
“This was true a few years ago, but I think there’s a swing back now, in large part due to the war. People are no longer apathetic, they’re apoplectic about the pathetic nature of the political class that run their affairs. There are new forces emerging with credible leaders and a clear voice, and with the ability to raise people’s horizons. These forces can motivate huge amounts of people. We did it here with the anti-war movement. The far left in Germany took 10% of the vote. Sinn Fein, to some extent, have done it in the north of Ireland. In Britain, we have fewer people voting but more people marching than ever before. This was always likely to happen in time when it became obvious that there were effectively two Tory parties taking turns to run the country. Wherever an election contest really counts and where there’s a clear alternative, we’ve proved that you can field a progressive radical candidate and win.”
The vote for you in Bethnal Green was overwhelming enough to make one wonder what might have happened had Respect put up other candidates elsewhere. Was the problem a lack of finance?
“Yeah, and time. We were only a year and four months old. In the local council elections next May, we’ll be fielding hundreds of candidates, and we’ll win seats everywhere. I expect us to win control of Tower Hamlets, and we’ve a good chance of being the biggest party in Newham, which is just next door. That would be two huge and populous boroughs within a few miles of Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London.”
You oppose Scottish independence. Why?
“I think the Scottish people have welded with the English economy and the English population over many hundreds of years. We work for the same companies, we’re in the same unions, we speak the same language, watch the same television, eat the same food – which is bloody awful on both sides of the border! I never could accept that The Beatles were foreigners to me. I think the best comparison would be with Czechoslovakia, where the Slovaks wanted separation from the Czech Republic at a time when nationalism generally was spreading through Eastern Europe like wildfire. But most of them regret it now. Slovakia is an embittered backwater, and the Czech Republic is one of the most attractive and dynamic places in the whole continent. My position is simple: the Scottish people, like any nation, have the right to self-determination. But they also have the right to decide not to exercise that right by creating a separate state. And Scotland is not remotely describable as an occupied country. Every four years, they could choose independence and it would be granted. But they refuse it. I think Scotland and England are so integrated, and so similar, that it would be a disaster and a very expensive one. And in the context of being members of the European Union, it really doesn’t make any sense to partition what’s already a small island.”
You’ve called for a general alliance between Muslims and the international left, on the basis that their enemies are the same: Zionism, capitalism, American global imperialism and so forth. Is this achievable?
“We’ve achieved it here. Look at the ethnic profile of the areas where Respect is strongest. You noticed that the taxi driver there, a Muslim, refused to accept money for the fare. He then said that all the taxi drivers on the rank are big admirers of me, and asked for the details of Respect so that the cab drivers at Nottingham railway station could join. Now, this is a product of the work that the anti-war movement has been doing, of integrating the progressive anti-war movement and the Muslim community, which is two million strong. In countries like France, it’s eight or nine million strong, and yet it’s entirely separate from the left. Everyone is worse off as a result. The left is far less powerful than it would be with another eight million supporters, and the Muslims are less powerful than they would be without the left, all of which enabled Chirac to sneak up and steal the hijab off the little girls' heads, and whip up race hatred as a consequence. The left was either neutral or backed Chirac. The big issues that you identified – war, occupation, Zionism, globalisation, civil liberties – are all issues on which the position of the Muslim community and the position of the socialist left are identical.”
You’ve crossed swords several times with a Home Office minister named Adam Ingram, a Scot who was once a member of the Orange Order.
“He had the humiliation of suing my book, I’m Not The Only One, because it described him as a former flautist in an Orange band. At the High Court in Edinburgh, the judge asked him had he been a member of the Order, to which he replied ‘yes’, and the judge held that the mere playing of a flute was not intrinsically more defamatory than being in the Orange Order. He was a marcher, irrespective of whether he played an actual flute. The purpose of these marches is to proclaim the supremacy of Protestants over Catholics: we don’t let the BNP march through Bradford. The Orange Order is an explicitly racist organisation, and he should be ashamed of having been a member of it.”
When such people go so far out of their way to discredit you, does it occur to you that you must be doing something right?
“Yes. They say that you can measure a man by his enemies, and if you look at my enemies, I suppose I’m truly blessed.”
You were the first MP to draw attention to the monstrous Saddam Hussein regime, and two decades later, the right-wing press do their best to imply that he was a personal friend of yours. Does that anger you?
“Of course it does, but the good news is that it’s not really working. I’ve won three general elections since the ill-fated encounter in question, and I speak every night to packed audiences. So people are not that easily fooled.”
Christopher Hitchens has accused you of personally profiting from the ‘Oil For Food’ programme. Do you intend to sue?
“Well, you can’t sue in the United States. He’s been very careful about where he said what he said. I’ve made my position absolutely clear under oath in the British High Court, and in the American Senate, on pain of imprisonment in both places. I wouldn’t have voluntarily gone to the Senate and sworn such an oath if I wasn’t entirely certain that these allegations are completely false.”
On a social level, how well do you get on with your fellow MPs?
“I’m not a particularly clubbable fellow, I don’t drink, and I’m on the road a lot. Funnily enough, I’m friendly with David Davis. When he was a Foreign Office minister, he was very good on Cuba, which I used to lobby him regularly about. He broke with the policy of backing the US on the subject at the UN, and he was very good generally about normalising relations with Cuba. I’ve been friends with him since.”
Did you enjoy the Tory conference?
“I was a little surprised that the leadership campaign burst open in the way that it did. Obviously, as an anti-war man I was hoping that Kenneth Clarke would make some gains. He exploded on the scene brilliantly and then David Davis sank, and that’s a surprise.”
Who do you think will get the leadership at this stage?
“I think it’s wide open now, any one of Clarke, Cameron or Davis could get it. The Tories’ problem over the last few leaders has been that they always pick the one that the Labour Party would like them to pick. You can be sure that the champagne would be broken out in Labour’s offices if they pick Davis. In the long run, they may be finished as a force, with Labour having colonised the centre-right so effectively.”
How did you react to the deaths of Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook?
“On a personal level, obviously it was very sad. Mowlam was more or less finished in politics, but Cook had a lot still to do and might well have gone back up near the top of the pole. We’ll never know now.”