George Galloway: an accidental hero

It says something about the degraded state of the global anti-war movement when the Swiss Toni of British politics can become its figurehead.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Until recently, probably the only person who took George Galloway seriously was George Galloway. And he took himself very seriously indeed: in his book I’m Not The Only One, he reminds readers that a newspaper once referred to him as ‘the left’s Lawrence of Arabia’, and says that like all prophets he is better known and better loved elsewhere – in his case ‘in the souks and bazaars of Arabia and the teeming shanties of Lahore and Karachi’, and Baghdad, where they sing ‘songs in my honour’ – than ‘in my own country’.

To most right-minded people who aren’t George Galloway, however, Galloway was better known as the occasionally firebrand leftie in the Labour Party (‘occasionally’ being the operative word: despite now describing New Labour as a ‘war-mongering, principle-shredding, mendacious malodorous rancid crew’, as a Labour MP under Blair from 1997 to 2003, Galloway is estimated by the Public Whip website to have rebelled in 32 of the 893 parliamentary votes he took part in, meaning he was loyal to the rancid crew 861 times) (1). Or he was known as the British MP with a penchant for wining and dining with Stalinist dictators in the third world, including Saddam Hussein. Or he was seen as the Swiss Toni of British politics, a mustachioed, cigar-chomping, perma-tanned poseur (Galloway recently said he ‘came to love Iraq the way a man loves a woman’, bringing to mind Swiss Toni’s best-known catchphrase).

Yet now, following his clash with the sub-committee on investigations at the US Senate in Washington, which falsely accused him of taking backhander oil vouchers from Saddam, Galloway is being taken seriously in lots of places. As a headline in the Glasgow Herald has it: ‘Adored, praised and feared – George Galloway’s gone global.’ (2) He has been lauded across America and Europe for standing up to his accusers, whom he accused of being ‘remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice’, before declaring: ‘In everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong – and 100,000 people paid with their lives.’ (3) He has been invited to do a speaking tour of America’s Ivy League colleges and is tipped by some to become ‘the next Michael Moore’. Little wonder that he described his visit to the Senate as ‘the biggest and most important event of my life’ (4).

All that from a spat over whether or not this east London MP received oil vouchers from the Ba’athists? Of course Galloway was right to defend himself against the pompous finger-pointers in the US Senate, who seem to have learned nothing from the WMD scandal about making unsubstantiated accusations. But how has he emerged as a hero of the international anti-war movement, as the plucky Scot who stands up to American tyrants in the name of oppressed peoples everywhere? Very little about Galloway has changed; he remains the opportunistic and self-promoting politician he always was. Rather, it is the degraded state of today’s anti-war movement that has allowed someone like Galloway to come to the fore: his brand of cheap anti-imperialism has gone mainstream in recent years, accidentally making him a man of our time.

It’s worth asking how a Scottish MP came to be known as Mr International. Galloway was Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead from 1987 to 1997 and Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin from 1997 to 2003. He was expelled from Labour in 2003 over comments he made about the Iraq war, and thus served as an Independent MP for Glasgow Kelvin from 2003 to 2005. Then, with his new left-wing, anti-war, anti-Blair party RESPECT, he won Bethnal Green and Bow in east London in the General Election earlier this month. Galloway is far better known, however, for his stance on Palestine and Iraq than for anything he ever did in Westminster or Scotland. He actively supported Palestinian demands for a separate homeland in the 1970s and 80s; he opposed the Gulf War of 1991 and campaigned against the UN sanctions that followed, becoming close to the Ba’athist regime (in particular deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, allegedly) in the process.

Yet like much of the British left, Galloway’s interest in international issues, and his support for national liberation struggles in the third world, was motivated less by genuine internationalism than by disillusionment with the working classes at home. It was a growing belief in the 70s and 80s that the British masses were largely a lost cause that tempted many on the left to go looking for the germ of revolution ‘over there’, among peoples who, in their view, had a bit more spirit about them.

There is a revealing passage in Galloway’s anti-war autobiography, I’m Not The Only One, where he describes how he came to have an ‘Oriental heart’ and devote his life to struggles overseas. It was 1975 and he was a 21-year-old full-time political activist staffing the Labour Party office in Rattray Street, Dundee. Yet his mind was not on Dundee; it was on the map of the world on the office wall, which had red flags showing where ‘our countries’ were. Indeed, Galloway says that he usually didn’t answer the door to the people of Dundee. ‘Our office was near the Unemployment Assistance Board, precursor of the Department of Social Security, and we were frequently inundated with hard-luck cases looking for parliamentary assistance’, he writes. But because there was little he could do for them, he ‘often let the doorbell ring’.

One day, however, he deigned to answer the door, and met Sa’ad Jabaji, a representative of the General Union of Palestinian Students at Dundee University. Jabaji spent two hours telling Galloway about the historic injustices committed against the Palestinian people; Galloway says it was ‘one of the most important [meetings] of my life’. He later visited Palestinian fighters in Beirut and was transfixed by this ‘different world I had entered’; it was ‘bliss’, he says, with ‘exotic Arabic music in the cafes and the whiff of revolution in the air’. In short, it was about as far away from Dundee and that city’s hard-luck cases as you could get. Upon his return to Dundee, Galloway told friends: ‘Whatever the consequences for my own political future, I intend to devote the rest of my life to the Palestinian and Arab cause.’

Of course, anti-imperialists have often supported struggles and revolutions – sometimes even fighting in them – in different parts of the world. Yet in the 70s and 80s, a time of crisis for the Labour left, the left’s support for radical movements in Latin America, South Africa and the Middle East was less about making links between working-class interests at home and working-class interests abroad; it was less an internationalist position, and more of a displacement activity, a way of avoiding the hard task of arguing for radical change among the people of Dundee as much as among people in Beirut or Johannesburg. (The left’s support for national liberation struggles never stretched to Ireland, of course; that was far too close to home and a bit too messy for their tastes.)

So in I’m Not The Only One, Galloway writes contemptuously about swathes of the population in Britain, including the Sun’s ‘six million-plus readers’, those ‘infamous “White Van” men and their “footballers’ wives” spouses’, informing us that, after the Sun described him as a traitor on its front page, ‘waves of [these] morons’ sent him hate mail. In contrast, he says he ‘fell in love with the people of Iraq’, who are always sincere and courteous. It was contempt for the masses at home, for those working-class drones and morons who apparently were beyond being won over to a radical agenda, which led Galloway and others to take up with those fighting against oppression abroad. However, he ended up getting dangerously close to supporting the tinpot tyrant Saddam, and now he supports the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, those suicidal car bombers whose only aim seems to be to cause fatalities, and the more the better. In its constant search for ‘revolution’ in distant lands, the left hooked up with some strange bedfellows.

For all the claims that Galloway is one brave man against a rampant war machine, in fact his lame variant of anti-war politics is now mainstream. In his book, Galloway says ‘there is no grimmer dictatorship than that of the prevailing orthodoxy’. Yet the response to his theatrics in Washington suggests that Galloway is the unofficial spokesman for some powerful orthodoxies today.

One of the main reasons he has opposed Western interventions over the past decade is because they might make life for we Westerners more dangerous and unpleasant. Of the Kosovo War of 1999, he says: ‘Drugs, prostitution, people-trafficking…the beggars on our streets, the vice barons in the red-light districts, the junk in the veins of our young people…these are all the unexpected gifts to the future from the humanitarian warriors Blair, Clinton and their ilk.’ In short, by bombing Kosovo we unleashed that country’s whores and druggies on to the world. He warned against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 on the basis that it would create ‘10,000 new bin Ladens’, and said that after the Iraq war, ‘terrorism would get worse…scarring the face of the world for a generation’.

The argument that war will make us less safe has been made everywhere, including in editorials in the right-wing Wall Street Journal, in the plush rooms of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and in anonymous statements from America’s leading military men – and probably even in the hallowed halls of the US Senate where Galloway stood up to the enemy. And it was key to the position of the Stop the War Coalition, from which Galloway’s RESPECT party was born, which warned on the eve of the Iraq war that, ‘We [are] inviting catastrophic terrorist actions on ourselves’.

This is an anti-war position less concerned with challenging America and Britain’s actions abroad on the grounds that they exacerbate local tensions and make life and politics a misery for people in the third world, than opposing such actions because they might unleash unknown quantities and risks, perhaps even provoking dark forces to do something horrendous over here. This shows up the opportunism of the leaders of the anti-war movement: they shamelessly indulge the fears of Western society about terror attacks, thinking this is the way to win people over, rather than challenging them.

At times, Galloway’s anti-war stance is motivated by shallow anti-Americanism. He describes President George W Bush as an ‘alcoholic former cocaine sniffer, a thrice-arrested, draft-dodging former playboy who has issues with the chewing of Pretzels…a world-class ignoramus, with a shrunken bar-room view of the world’. And then he says that ‘in his ignorance about the world, Bush is of course merely speaking for his people….’ Attacking the stupidity of Bush, and of the American people he leads, is hardly a controversial line at a time when books called Stupid White Men top the bestseller lists and when even Prince Phillip (described in Galloway’s book as a ‘good egg’, funnily enough) reportedly complained about the arrival of Bush at Buckingham Palace in 2003.

But it is Galloway’s narcissism, his ability to make every issue, even the disasters of Iraq and Palestine, about himself, which has made him the ideal figurehead of today’s anti-war movement. His performance in Washington was an ego trip, a piece of ‘political theatre’, as one commentator called it, designed to allow Gorgeous George to show the world what a good, decent, honourable man he is. Some have asked: What does that matter? So what if he’s on an ego-buzz – at least he’s getting the anti-war message out there. It does matter – in the sense that Galloway’s narcissism reflects the narcissism inherent in what passes for anti-war politics today.

The widespread opposition to the Iraq war – from the mainstream media to political circles to the big (but shortlived) protests in London and other major cities – was also more about us than it was about them, more about washing our hands of war than offering true solidarity with the people of Iraq. Consider the cri de coeur of the anti-war movement – ‘Not in my name’. This slogan highlighted the passive nature of the anti-war movement: it was a way of saying that when war breaks out, we want nothing to do with it; this was more about cleansing one’s conscience than effecting public change, and demonstrating your whiter-than-white credentials to onlookers by making a personal declaration that the war is not for you. That is why the anti-war movement fizzled out so quickly, shrinking from two million marchers in Hyde Park in February 2003 to handfuls of activists today – because it takes more than personal disgruntlement to sustain a political movement. Galloway is the ideal hero of such a preening and fickle episode.

Galloway gave an entertaining performance in Washington, and he certainly stuck it to arrogant American politicians who had it coming. But those anti-war activists and writers who now argue that this piece of theatre represents a major shift in society, and perhaps even heralds the dawn of a new era of anti-imperialism, are kidding themselves. They should take a long hard look at the true state of the anti-war movement – and get out more. Only in a land of spineless politicians and anaemic politics could the Scot with a big voice be declared king.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See The Public Whip website

(2) Adored, praised and feared – George Galloway’s gone global, Herald, 23 May 2005

(3) Galloway v the US Senate: transcript of statement, The Times, 18 May 2005

(4) Adored, praised and feared – George Galloway’s gone global, Herald, 23 May 2005

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Topics Politics


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