Indefatigably yours

May 19, 2003

George Galloway

So here we are, inside the gates with the guard dog warning, behind the locked front door, at home with Britain’s best-dressed “traitor”. After the chat and the toasted pitta, I’m taken on a tour of the pictures. JFK on the upstairs landing, a striking sequence of Che Guevara by the stairs and, in the front room, a wall dedicated to the householder. A framed magazine cover. A black-and-white snap of him as a young firebrand with a full head of hair. Some years older, arguing with a voter. A newspaper caricature riding on a camel. Several colour shots taken with Castro, looking like History is being made.

I’m not here to meet the propagandist allegedly paid by Iraqi intelligence, or the “inciter of war against British troops”, or any of his other media doppelgangers. My brief is to interview the man himself. There’s just one problem: George Galloway is as susceptible to the mythology of George Galloway as anyone.

We’ll start with the media myths, rather than his own. There’s Galloway the flash: the Gucci-shod, Versace-suited geezer with his Mercedes and his Havana cigars; and Galloway the ladies man, who famously admitted carnal knowledge of more than one fellow-delegate at a conference in Greece, the Galloway whose alluring Palestinian wife is pictured in the newspapers every chance they get.

He can restate the facts till he’s hoarse – he never said he’d slept with both women during the conference, he bought the third-hand Mercedes for £17,000, he’s never worn a Gucci shoe, wouldn’t be seen dead in Versace (though he once attended a demonstration carrying a Hugo Boss bag) – it makes no difference: he continues to provoke a mixture of schoolboy envy and disgust in certain quarters. It’s a British reflex with a pedigree stretching back to medieval anti-clericalism: those who profess high ideals must be exposed as motivated by the grossest materialism. Sex or money or, better still, both.

Which is not to say that Galloway did not take Iraqi gold. Frankly, who knows? Even the Telegraph insists it was reporting the content of incriminating Iraqi documents, not actively accusing him.

The first surprise is that, while the myth is larger-than-life, the man is smaller. But then, he has been branded a traitor in the Sun, suspended by the Labour Party, made the subject of inquiries by Labour, the Charity Commission and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and accused of taking hundreds of thousands from Saddam Hussein. It’s the sort of run of bad luck which might get a person down.

Awake or asleep, it goes round and round in his head. He’s narrowed it down to three possibilities. He may be the victim of British intelligence dirty tricks. Or it may be simple commerce: there are people in Iraq doing a roaring trade in forged papers. Or somebody in Iraq was looting their homeland under the cover of his name. “I’m absolutely confident that these documents will be found to be false, but in a deluge like I’ve just been through it’s difficult to really dry yourself off completely. They really are out to get me on all fronts, carefully co-ordinated, the same day, all processes controlled by the Labour Party.”

So is it the end for George Galloway MP? Minutes later he’s all defiance, shrugging off predictions that Labour’s inquiry (into remarks he made on Abu Dhabi television) will prevent him being selected as candidate for the redrawn Glasgow Central constituency. And anyway: within or outwith the party, in or out of parliament, he’ll remain a politician.

Sitting there with his cup of coffee and his worry beads, he looks … well, truthfully, he looks Arabian. It’s more than the tan, or the Middle Eastern ambience of his house. “I wouldn’t like you to think I’m some sort of Lawrence of Arabia figure,” he says. “I’m really not starry-eyed about the Arabs. I’m playing with worry beads because I’m worried, not because they’re Arab.” Yet he loves Arab culture: the food, the music, the hubble-bubble pipe, the traditional character of the people. “Tremendous warmth and respect and politeness. They’re people with a great concept of honour who believe, like me, that dishonour is worse than death and what matters in life is to strive for the honourable thing.” Another affinity occurs to him. “And a belief in God: that one day you will be judged.”

He’s awed by the happenstance of it: had the centre of world political events been elsewhere, he might have been talking to me about his work in Vietnam or Latin America, but it was an Omar Sharif-lookalike who turned up at the Dundee Labour Party office 30 years ago and opened his eyes to the sufferings of the Palestinians. Those two hours changed the course of his life. He went to Beirut, met Yasser Arafat, got Dundee twinned with Nablus on the occupied West Bank. Years later, addressing a public meeting in Partick, he met a Palestinian woman. She’s now his wife. So he could have married a Vietnamese woman? “I think women are women and men are men, you fall in love with the woman, not her passport – or in my wife’s case her lack of a passport.” But, he concedes, had he been speaking at a meeting about Vietnam, she might not have been in the audience … He believes in kismet.

His wife, Amineh Abu-Zayyad, is in the kitchen with her cousin, toasting pitta bread and keeping out of sight. She’s a molecular cell biologist who specialises in the effect of depleted uranium on children’s cancer epidemics in Iraq. Five years ago Galloway set up the Mariam appeal to publicise the case of a young Iraqi girl who developed leukaemia as a result of the Allies’ use of uranium-tipped weapons in the first Gulf War. It was through Amineh that Galloway met Fawaz Zureikat, the Jordanian accused alongside him by the Telegraph. Her uncle is Saddam Hussein’s biographer. Galloway is aware of a tendency in the media, and even in people half close to him, to blame her for his current predicament. “People ask me if I do what I do because of her. She was a small child when I started. Not only does she not push me, she’s frequently asked me to forget the Arabs, to stop this, to be a British politician concentrating on British issues.”

Thousands of words have been written about Galloway and Iraq, but the facts bear repetition. His demonstrations against the regime in the late 1970s. His repeated denunciations of the dictator. Then, in 1994, his apparent volte-face. The televised meeting where he seemed to salute Saddam’s courage, strength and indefatigability (he says he was quoted out of context and was praising the Iraqi people). Shaken by the ensuing furore, he didn’t campaign on Iraq for four years. But in 1998, with war on the horizon and children dying as a result of UN sanctions, he launched the Mariam appeal. Last summer he met Saddam for the second and last time, interviewing him for the Mail on Sunday. Readers learned of the dictator’s gentle handshake, his diffident manner and his admiration for all things British, from Quality Street chocolates to red double-deckers and three-pin plugs. (“I was trying to stop a war,” Galloway says testily. “I’m not pretending to you it was from the purest school of objective writing.”)

Could he not have campaigned against sanctions while continuing to highlight Saddam’s abuses of human rights? “If you were going to get inside what was happening in sanctions-stretched Iraq, to really smell the suffering, to see the death and destruction being caused, you had to go to Iraq. I took countless journalists, parliamentarians, activists to Iraq, and you had to deal with the Iraqi leadership to do that.”

Yet the way he embraced the role of “member for Baghdad Central” seemed beyond mere expediency. He was brave and foolish, he says. “I know that discretion would have been the better part of valour in the sense that if I hadn’t been so far out in front, so passionately taking on the most powerful enemies in the world, I wouldn’t now be wounded in the way that I am. That’s what I mean by foolish. Would I do it again? Yes I would. Maybe that makes me even more foolish.”

He’s not the type to learn from his mistakes? “As they say, the human being is the only animal that stubs its toe on the same rock twice, so I don’t learn as well as I should, but life is short, and there’s so much to do. If you spent your time worrying overmuch about what mistakes you might make, you wouldn’t do half of what you could be doing.” He smiles ruefully: “But I never said ‘indefatigability’ again.”

Over 20 years ago the Telegraph tried – and failed – to tie him into a fantastical tale of PLO gold and covert ownership of the Lee Jeans factory in Greenock. In 1991 a Charity Commission report into War on Want’s finances found that he and his successor as general secretary had lacked expertise in crucial areas. He paid back £1,700 he had claimed in expenses. Now we have another Telegraph allegation and another Charity Commission inquiry, into the Mariam appeal. His attitude to money leaves him vulnerable to such suspicions. Unlike the Scottish Socialist Party MSPs, with their denunciations of “fat cats” and their average worker’s wage, Galloway disdains the whole issue. He’s not interested in money, he says. At the same time, he’s not the frugal type. “As I told Tommy Sheridan once, I couldn’t live on three workers’ wages.

“I spend my life working, I don’t do anything else: I don’t go to casinos, I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve meetings nearly every night of the week. Of course I don’t go around in sackcloth and ashes, why should I? Everything I have in life I’ve earned myself. Every penny I make I spend. I earned nearly £150,000 last year: I’ve got an overdraft. I don’t have any savings. I spend it on the move on the things I need to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system.”

Hundreds of people have written to him and rallied in his support. Read the Guardian letters page: he’s a hero of the Left – though not as far left as you might think. He’s not a command economy socialist. He believes certain aspects of capitalism are inescapably with us: the state is bad at running restaurants, private individuals are better. “I’m a centre-left Labour man. I’ve never been in the Campaign Group, I’ve never been a Trotskyist, I’ve never been a Communist, I occupy a piece of political ground that was once commonplace but can be caricatured as being extreme now only because of how the political centre of gravity has moved.”

Though no-one cares in today’s Labour Party, he boasts impeccable working-class credentials: brought up in a Dundee council house, both sets of grandparents in the jute mills. His father worked his way up from electrician to electro-mechanical engineer at NCR and, when made redundant, retrained as a teacher. A Labour and union man, he always spruced himself up in suit, tie and Brylcreem before meetings. His son has inherited this sartorial pride. The gift of the gab he gets from his Irish-descended mother, a factory worker and, later, a cleaner. While her husband was a fervent patriot, she was critical of Britain’s role in the world. Young George took his mother’s side of the argument.

It was a political household. His father only watched BBC (ITV was “rubbish”). Dinner table conversation focused on the great issues of the day. At primary school George could recite Kennedy’s speeches. At 13 he enlisted in the Young Socialists. At 15 he grew a moustache in emulation of his hero Che. After leaving school he worked in the mills and a tyre factory, cut grass as a garden labourer … “But really from an early age I was a full-time political activist waiting to be freed to do so.”

The jingoistic father whose offspring is branded a traitor … it sounds awfully like a twist on the age-old family struggle. Not so, he says. He respected his father, though they had their political differences, some of them quite serious. Their last conversation before his father’s death was a row, to his enduring regret. “My father believed that Britain was the best country in the world, Scotland was the best part of Britain, Dundee was the best part of Scotland. I always believed he’d exaggerated and accentuated the good things about Britain – of which there are many – and that this was implicitly racist, really. I rebuked him for telling my nephew that the British Museum was the greatest museum in the world. ‘Why are you bringing him up the way you brought us up, to believe that everything British is best? It’s not true. Nearly everything in the British Museum has been stolen from other people …’ That sort of row. Stupid, really.”

Galloway pauses and, lifting my head from my notebook, I see tears in his eyes. Looking into his watery gaze, my first response is to wonder whether he is suffering from an eye infection. Then I feel guilty for this thought. Then it registers that he stopped speaking and stared at me until I noticed. It’s not that I think he’s faking, more that everything he says and does has a quality of knowingness about it. He speaks in long, elegantly constructed sentences. His least significant remarks are irresistibly quotable. As a result, even his rawest admissions feel oddly impersonal, as if he’s talking to an invisible third party. Though his situation hardly requires it, he has a tendency to over-dramatise, referring to his “enemies”; describing himself as “bloodied but unbowed”; telling me that as he left a rally of supporters “strong men wept”. At times his voice assumes a self-consciously tragic timbre. To be honest, he’s a bit of a ham.

His media savvy shouldn’t really surprise me. He pens a weekly column for the Scottish Mail on Sunday and “two or three” of his five closest friends are journalists. He has spoken to Seumas Milne of the Guardian and John Boothman, editor of BBC Scotland’s Holyrood Live, every day for 20 years or more. BBC news correspondent Bob Wylie is another close friend, as is Ron McKay, the man who commissioned Tony Benn’s television interview with Saddam. They, not his fellow MPs, are his political sounding boards.

It’s not journalists per se he’s drawn to: most of them are unprincipled and hypocritical. (Like most politicians, he adds.) But he’s open to the idea that the best of the breed are essentially independent, no matter who pays their wages. He’s often labelled a maverick: one of the dictionary definitions of the word is “an unbranded beast”. “I’m not owned by anyone and I like that in people.”

This is precisely the trait which is said to upset his fellow Labour MPs. He’s been described as a parliamentary loner, though he bridles at the phrase. “I don’t drink so I’m never in the bars. There’s only so much tea you can drink in the tea room. I spend my life on the campaign trail. If they mean by that ‘am I clubbable in the House of Commons sense?’ I’m not, but I don’t think I’m unpersonable.”

Tony Benn and Michael Foot have been in regular contact during his current difficulties. Members of the Campaign Group are constantly issuing supportive statements. On the other hand, “Parliament’s a very unfraternal environment. Most people there see themselves as entire unto themselves and almost in competition with others. And there’s a fantastic amount of intimidation …”

It’s no accident that the three inquiries into him were announced the day before the vote on foundation hospitals, he says, and no accident that the Labour revolt was a damp squib. “There are two MPs who used to speak to me but who walked past me the last time they saw me. Neither of them is a household name, perhaps even in their own house, so I was mildly amused rather than hurt.”

Galloway the unclubbable, shunning the bars of Westminster for the campaign trail; Galloway the member for Baghdad Central; Galloway the unbranded beast … it’s hard to avoid the impression that he finds something reinforcing in the role of outsider. In his 35-year membership of the party, he has never held power. He insists he’d be good at it: compromising, keeping quiet, making deals, doing the things that political leaders need to do. He’s not temperamentally averse to the responsibilities of power, “but I don’t think I’ll persuade you of that”.

Well, he might have done had he not added that rider. The problem with trying to disentangle George Galloway the man from his image is that, though he’ll acknowledge where the two part company, he never quite kills off the myths.

Showing off his pictures of Che Guevara, he makes a big deal of pointing out his favourite, knowing the conclusions I’ll draw. Guevara stands in front of a microphone in a packed theatre, spotlit by hard white light. The revolutionary as rock star. It’s like that moment in a movie when they cut the sound: iconic, portentous. Despite the crowd, he looks utterly alone.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications