An interview with George Galloway is not to be underestimated, and it was with slight trepidation that I found out I was to be the one to interrogate him: his ferocious verbal assaults on the upper echelons of politics and the media, from Sky News to BBC Question time, culminating in his unflinching confrontation of the US Senate, cascaded through my mind in a barrage of impassioned put-downs and inflamed confrontations. The man deceptively nicknamed ‘Gorgeous George’ (with perhaps more than just a name in common with the bare-knuckle fighter featuring in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla) is notorious for his volcanic temper, militant debating style and explosive rhetoric regarding the Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the “blue blood of Thatcherism”, amongst others, and it does not seem surprising that he was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 for denouncing Tony Blair’s complicity in Iraq. ‘Loose cannon’ would seem a gross understatement in his case.
However, the man who greeted me before the talk showed no signs of his firebrand reputation, shaking hands and greeting the assembly with a couple of light-hearted witticisms. Wearing a tieless three-piece grey suit, he seated himself before me with a relaxed openness, answering questions with reserved sincerity and a deep Scottish brogue.
The first question was whether Western intervention in Syria would ever be justified, to which he replied that “you don’t need to look in the crystal ball, just the country next door, i.e. Iraq” and that “anyone who wishes Syria to end up like Iraq needs their head examined” – there were already signs of his customary habit of insulting the intelligence of his opponents – “Yet there are people out there who wish the political ‘stripe’ of Arab nationalism ill – you’ve got to learn from your mistakes.” Indeed, his strident views on nationalism were later probed in questions after his talk, which resulted in much heated debate and vigorous gesticulation; he claimed that “nationalism was almost entirely a bad thing in developed countries”, and that we must work towards a more “collectivised” Europe, claiming that “it is not a great vision to wish yourself smaller”, (save for the sake of Alex Salmond’s weight, who he joked had got “taller and wider” in his rise to the top of Scottish parliament).
We then addressed the issue of religion versus politics in the Middle East – could the two ever be separated? He denied that “anything in the Middle East is about religion – it’s about land.” He spoke of his sympathy for the “disinherited, statusless, passportless” Palestinian people “scattered across the globe”, claiming that “the conflict with Zionism is not about religion: Jews always lived in Palestine, and they lived as equal citizens beside the Christian and Muslim people there” – he blames the Western “imperialism” (a favourite buzzword) that apparently sought to divide the people by the creation of the Israeli state. He once described Tony Blair and George Bush as “wolves”, and appears to stand by his words, despite his expulsion from the Labour party as a result of those comments. The ‘special relationship’, he argued, has only served to ignite tensions within the Middle East, citing the “millions” of deaths of Iraqi civilians, which, despite the somewhat smoothed statistics, at least seems to mirror the concerns of the more recently elected leaders of this pairing, David Cameron and Barack Obama.
Given this opposition to Western meddling with Arab affairs, what were his opinions on Abu Qatada being allowed to stay in the UK and not be tried in his home country? “That’s an interesting question” he replies, “because I’m not sure what he would be tried for. Trust me, there is no one who finds Al Qaeda types more distasteful than me, after all, I was opposing Al Qaeda when Britain and America were giving it guns to fight in Afghanistan” – another reference to one of his infamous, and numerous, prophecies. “If the phrase ‘Osama’s right man in Europe’ is true, then no-one will find him more repugnant than I”. He also criticised the West’s alliance with countries who “torture people”, hinting at his Fahrenheit 9/11-esque views on the “hypocrisy” of those on the “inside”; in his talk, he claimed to have set up the Respect Party for this very reason – “We had thousands of demonstrators on the outside, but no-one in the establishment…I bridged that gap”.
Moving from international politics to more pressing issues for the students here in St Andrews, I asked whether he supported the abolition of tuition fees. His reply mirrored his subsequent talk, to the Domestic Politics Society, citing the social injustice he faced as a youngster: “I worked from the age of 16 and paid taxes so that Tony Blair could obtain a grant to go and study at Oxford University absolutely free. When he and his fellows kicked that ladder away from others, it was a particularly gross act of vandalism.” One of his more ambiguous phrases on this issue is calling education “an investment, not a cost” – a rhetorical phrase that perhaps does not stand up to critical scrutiny (surely an investment can come from a family as much as government? Who exactly regards education as a “cost” to be minimised?) Later on in the talk, he both praised Old Labour’s transformation of the University system from the days of “punting, sports-car driving, straw-hat wearing students” to the more egalitarian current situation, and condemned the introduction of tuition fees by Blair government: he apparently prophesised the eventual rise to £9,000, citing an incident when he warned Gordon Brown over the initial introduction of the £1,000 charge – “It was a matter of principle!” he bellows across Parliament Hall, just as he did at Brown, “And look where we are now! Who’s to say they won’t be at £15,000 by the time your children are attending university!”
Much of his talk on complex political situations seemed to revolve around regarding them from a singular, personal experience – he praised Labour’s achievements, for example, by citing his childhood in Dundee, in which he was able to receive free healthcare, schooling and a house “with a toilet that had a door in front of it”. This formed part of a wider espousal of the virtues of the “real Labour party”, which he claimed was responsible “for every good thing to happen in Britain since 1945” – careful, of course, not to associate himself with the “two cheeks of the same backside” politics of New Labour, i.e. Tony Blair’s centrist governance. His speeches are a curious mixture of grand intellectual manifestos, such as Marx’s infamous quotation on Capitalism – the refrain of “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” was used in both his opening and closing lines – and gritty, fuming buzzwords such as the “blue blood of Thatcherism”: he strikes an audience as less the pragmatic politician, more the inspiring rhetorician and socialist revolutionary.
His concluding remarks in the talk implored the audience to “think socially”, and came almost as a rallying war-cry against an apocalyptic vision of Marx’s “melting society” produced by Capitalism, and the audience could see the real George Galloway revealed before them. Returning to the Oliver Twist theme, he left the audience with the reflection that “the gap between rich and poor is larger now than it was when Dickens was writing”, a statement that perhaps bounced with some irony off the well-furnished surroundings of Parliament Hall. Indeed, throughout his talk he lightly mocked the “Thatcherites” educated in St Andrews, and was pleasantly surprised when addressed by a St Andrews alumnus with a thick Dundee accent. Yet, beneath his lapses into the demagoguery of anti-establishment, anti-Blair, anti-Capitalist bombast, he did appear to harbour genuine concerns for the “working class” and more deeply consider issues that he has passionately campaigned for throughout his life. It was less the self-publicist Galloway, dressing in a leotard and licking milk off a fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestant’s hands as a cat, more the man who had found a genuine, worthy cause in the victims of Western politics. What was perhaps lacking in clarity or sophistication of his policies – as well as the thorny question of his rape comments regarding Julian Assange’s trial, which he vehemently dismissed with an emphatic “No means no” message – he more than made up for in sheer oratorical impact, and for this reason he was an exceptionally engaging guest for the St Andrews Domestic Politics Society. A controversial and notorious figure, but one who certainly kept the debate heated and the pulses raised.
All photos: Jake Threadgould