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George and his dragons: Galloway remains a thorn in the side of the Establishment

The Respect MP speaks exclusively to The National a year after he returned to UK parliamentary politics.

Saddam Hussein receives George Galloway in Baghdad in 2002. AP Photo / INA
Saddam Hussein receives George Galloway in Baghdad in 2002. AP Photo / INA

On May 17, 2005, a backbench MP from Westminster sat before a United States Senate subcommittee investigating sanctions-busting oil deals in Iraq before the war, and boldly stated: “I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader”, deliberately echoing language from Joe McCarthy’s infamous anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

Eleven years earlier, the same politician had made a personal visit to Saddam Hussein, and, in the presence of the then-Iraqi dictator and TV cameras, uttered the immortal lines: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”, earning him the title of the “MP for Baghdad Central” from his political foes.

George Galloway, today a member of parliament for his Respect Party in Bradford West in northern England, has rarely shunned controversy in all his years in British politics, remaining one of the most divisive political figures ever to grace the hallowed halls of Westminster. He is the mavericks’ maverick, a man who has built a reputation as a political street fighter, a consummate public speaker who is widely known for his anti-war views – and most notably for his love of the people of the Arab world and his unwavering support for Palestinian rights.

In March, Galloway celebrated his first anniversary as Bradford West’s parliamentary representative after securing a thumping 10,000-plus majority in a by-election that he triumphantly hailed the “Bradford Spring”, inflicting a heavy defeat on the incumbent Labour Party from which he was sensationally expelled in 2003. And, as his many political colleagues would surely testify, the man dubbed “Gorgeous George” by the UK tabloid press has been in no mood to show his softer side in the proverbial bear pit that is Westminster following his 2012 victory.

“I can’t say that I missed parliament, no,” says the veteran MP of his return to parliamentary politics after a two-year absence during which he worked as a radio talk-show host and TV presenter for the Iranian-backed Press TV, speaking exclusively to The National.

“And, it wasn’t my intention, really, to come back to parliament, but when a by-election presented itself in a place where we were very strong, and where I knew that I had quite a high level of popularity, the prospect of giving New Labour another beating was too good to miss – too tantalising. Nobody in the world believed that I could, in 19 days, overhaul a huge Labour majority and win a landslide majority of my own.”

Most recently, Galloway tried to prevent the cancellation of prime minister’s questions on the day of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s funeral – a woman whose politics he detested, and where, in his native Scotland, she remains a deeply unpopular figure – arguing that it was wrong to cancel the weekly slot for the funeral of such a controversial former premier. His bid failed, but his intervention did much to remind people of his uncanny ability to get under the skin of the British establishment.

But it is the Middle East, perhaps more than any other subject, that still elicits the most passionate response from this cigar-chomping Scot, who married for a fourth time last year. Born in 1954 in Dundee, on Scotland’s east coast, Galloway had never met an Arab or a Muslim until one day a Palestinian student came knocking at the door of the Labour Party office in Dundee in 1975 while the then-21-year-old was busy printing leaflets.

“He said he wanted to speak to the leaders of the party about Palestine,” recalls Galloway, who, at the time, was gaining a reputation as a rising star of the Dundee Labour Party.

“I told him there are no leaders here, but you can talk to me and I’ll talk to them … two hours later I was a signed-up member of the Palestinian resistance, which, by the grace of God, I have remained ever since. Within two years, I was living in Beirut with [Yasser] Arafat amidst the rubble from where I grew increasingly close to the Palestinian people and the wider Arab Middle East.”

Nearly four decades on from that Road to Damascus meeting in Dundee, and this perennial rebel, who spends four days a month in Beirut where he makes two TV programmes, has almost become synonymous with the Arab region. Ask him about his feelings on Iraq since the US and UK-led invasion 10 years ago, and the vocal anti-war stance that ultimately led to his expulsion from the Labour Party, and his first words are “tremendously vindicated”.

“But, that’s a very small consolation in seeing Iraq broken into pieces, each piece a sectarian fiefdom controlled by its own militia,” continues Galloway, who has always insisted that his infamous words to Saddam were meant for the people of Iraq – not their tyrannical leader. “Iraq will never be a single country again. And the political systems in the US and particularly the UK are wrecked by the Iraq war lies.

“I loved Iraq and the people of Iraq, and a million of them are now dead because of the subsequent occupation.” (Official and unofficial estimates of body counts in the decade since the invasion vary dramatically, from 110,600 to more than one million.)

As for Syria, Galloway, who first gave his former party a bloody nose in 2005 when he ousted the incumbent Labour MP in London’s Bethnal Green and Bow in that year’s general election, sees duplicity at the heart of those powers that are supporting the revolution at the expense of President Bashar Al Assad’s beleaguered regime.

“Any revolution that has the support of Israel, Britain, France, the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is probably not a revolution I want to join,” he says.

“The idea that that motley crew would like to see democracy and liberty in Syria is laughable. They contain within their ranks the least democratic, the least free countries on the Earth. And, so I immediately smell a rat – and it’s a big rat. It’s a rat that’s destroying Syria as Iraq was destroyed … The real reasons for the involvement of this crew are, of course, not as stated.

“It can’t be because Syria is a dictatorship … What else it is, is obvious – it’s because Syria refused to break its relations with the Lebanese resistance, break its relations with Iran, because it refused to be used as a base for the attack on Iraq … these are the real reasons.”

At the core of Galloway’s being, however, is the burning flame that is Palestine. And, he vehemently maintains that pursuing a two-state solution is not the way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I fight for a democratic state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea where all the Jews, Muslims and Christians live as equal citizens under the law,” says Galloway.

“One man, one woman, one vote, one government – that’s what we demanded of apartheid South Africa … We’ve been talking about a two-state solution for 20 years, and, of course, it’s not one centimetre or one millimetre closer. Indeed, the topography, the demography, the walls, the settlements and so on all daily make a two-state solution more ridiculous.”

The man who first entered parliament in 1987 as a Glasgow MP had to suffer setbacks in the 2010 UK general election and the 2011 Scottish Parliament election before his victory in Bradford West propelled him back into the political limelight. But, where many might see Galloway as a somewhat marginal figure in Westminster today, the 58-year-old says “it is an honour to be isolated from the great majority of the members of this parliament.

“They are an expenses-feeding bunch of sheep, who do what they’re told by a leader figure, who are increasingly not even worthy of the name leader,” continues Galloway, who publicly called the UK Labour leader Ed Miliband “an unprincipled coward with the backbone of an amoeba” after a recent spat with the man vying to become Britain’s next prime minister.

“I don’t drink – I never have – I don’t go into bars – most of the [members of parliament] are never out the bars, some of them roll around punching policeman in the bars; I don’t play debating games – it’s not a game for me – so I do my duty in here and I go and speak at public meetings around the country, appear on television, grab my radio opportunities and write, so I don’t consider that isolated.

“I think I speak for millions of people and one day that will have its reflection in the British political system. But not yet.”

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.

thereview@thenational.ae