George Galloway interview
The Independent on Sunday, October 2003
Gorgeous George/The last of the go-getters
Gorgeous George/A dandy to the letter
You really should know better
- “Gorgeous George”, Edwyn Collins
I’VE no idea whether or not Collins was thinking of the MP for Glasgow Kelvin – and, as has often been sneered, Baghdad Central – when he sang the above chorus, but it fits. A go-getter, certainly: the night before our meeting at his office, Galloway had driven to Leeds and back, singing along to his cherished Bob Dylan cassettes, to speak at the university; he’d been in Dover the night before that, he’s due at London’s School for Oriental and African Studies after this interview, and says he’s booked to year’s end. A dandy, famously: “Gorgeous” George earnt his nickname with his suntan and suits, and he’s characteristically dapper today, black whistle pressed, silver moustache combed. As for “should know better”, well, where to start? Galloway was once caught on camera saying to Saddam Hussein “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability,” and today, to pluck one more or less random example. . .
“If it comes to invasion of North Korea,” he declares, “I’ll be with North Korea. Be sure about that. Because if there’s one thing worse than a tinpot third-world dictator, it’s an imbecile in the White House, roaming around like a giant with the mind of a child.”
It would be an exaggeration to report that the extraordinary global and personal events of the last two years have mellowed George Galloway.
GALLOWAY is harried by pursuers overt and covert. His party has suspended him, he stands accused by a national newspaper of taking backhanders from Saddam Hussein, he’s been threatened with death by a Hollywood superstar – in May 2002, John Malkovich made a bizarre outburst in which he said he’d like to shoot Galloway and The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk – and in July this year arrived at his holiday home in Portugal to find it burgled. The thieves had ignored his wife’s jewellery, and instead lifted his laptop, his desk – a van was employed for the purpose – and his chair. Galloway claims that the only bounty netted was a draft of his autobiography (title: “In The Wars”).
“I don’t feel in physical danger,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to be found like David Kelly in the woods, and I hope these are not famous last words. But I’m sure there are people who want to know what I’m saying on the phone, or what I’m writing on my computer, and inevitably, people have swarmed over Baghdad trying to stand up the attack that was made on me – that Saddam Hussein was giving me money. It’s one thing to be attacked for your political views. It’s another to be smeared personally, and it’s painful.”
There was never much doubt that Galloway’s reputation would be among the collateral damage of an assault on Iraq. In the rubble of post-war Baghdad, documents surfaced suggesting that Galloway’s relationship to Iraq was rather more than that of a friend of its long-suffering people. The Daily Telegraph ran the sensational allegation that Galloway had been receiving oil earnings of at least £375,000 a year from the Iraqi government. An American newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, armed with a different set of documents, claimed that Galloway had trousered US$10 million from Saddam Hussein. The Christian Science Monitor later admitted that it had been duped by forgeries. The Telegraph stands by its story, and Galloway is suing. He won’t talk about the case in detail, but is impenetrably confident for a man who must know that a loss would finish him politically, could ruin him financially, and might even see him supping porridge at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – a pleasure unlikely to be as complete as that which would be savoured by Galloway’s many detractors.
Galloway was not just a campaigner against the war, but had close ties to the regime in Baghdad. This bond was forged via Galloway’s charity-cum-lobby The Mariam Appeal – now under investigation by the Charities Commission – through which Galloway campaigned against UN sanctions on Iraq. The Mariam Appeal pursued this cause with some style – in 1999, in the Mother of all Publicity Stunts, they drove a Routemaster bus from London to Baghdad, via France, Spain, and Arab North Africa.
Even before that extraordinary trip, Galloway’s personal journey had been a scenic one. He was born in a Dundee slum in 1954, and after leaving school worked in a jute mill and a Michelin tyre factory, all the while rapidly networking his way rapidly through the local Labour Party, which he’d joined as a teenager. In 1977, he was elected to Dundee Council – where, legend has it, a Palestinian visitor to Scotland wandered into the offices and told Galloway of his peoples’ woes. His tale was obviously convincingly told; the young councillor was inspired to make his first visit to the Middle East, and after returning, arranged to have Dundee twinned with Nablus. Quite what the denizens of Dundee must have made of the Palestinian flag flying from their town hall can only be wondered at.
Galloway’s last job before entering the Commons in 1987 was General Secretary of War on Want. Under Galloway’s leadership, the charity expanded then collapsed like a forgotten souffle, and Galloway was accused of fiddling his expenses and womanising. He was cleared of the former – though he repaid £1,720 – but admitted the latter. Galloway separated from his first wife in 1987, and since 1991 has been with Amineh Abu-Zayad, a Palestinian scientist who is now the second Mrs Galloway. As was censoriously reported in the days after the Gallowgate story broke, the couple live well, owning a large home in South London and a modest holiday villa in the Algarve. Galloway, reasonably, points out that this is hardly incompatible with his salary as an MP, and his substantial earnings as a columnist for the Scottish edition of the Mail on Sunday – between £70,001 and £75,000 a year, according to the Register of Members’ Interests. If Galloway has indeed pocketed millions of dollars’ worth of Iraqi largesse, his accusers have yet to reveal what he’s done with it.
In August 2002, Galloway interviewed his alleged benefactor for the Mail on Sunday. The piece portrayed Saddam as an amiable anglophile, chuntering about Winston Churchill and three-pin plugs while he nibbled Quality Street chocolates, and earnt Galloway much mockery. As war began, Galloway gave an interview to Abu Dhabi television, calling Blair and Bush “wolves”, and urging British soldiers to disobey orders. This got him suspended from the Labour Party, an organisation he has been a member of for 36 of his 49 years. It also got his face on the front page of The Sun, beneath a headline screaming “Traitor”; an accompanying editorial went close to suggesting it’d be best all round if Galloway went the way of Lord Haw-Haw, his treachery silenced by a noose.
“It didn’t feel pleasant,” he says today. “But if the price of avoiding that is saying things you don’t believe, or not saying things you do believe, it’s not one I’m prepared to pay. I could shadow-box around this room with you today, I could soft-soap, I could avoid your questions, but that would not be being honest. And I think I have developed a large constituency of people in this country who respect my honesty, my steadiness under fire, and that’s more important to me than what Rupert Murdoch or his hirelings think.”
Do you feel vindicated?
“Absolutely I do,” he snaps. “I over-estimated the battle there would be for Baghdad, but that battle has taken a different form – a guerilla fight rather than a conventional one. But everything I said about the Iraqi resistance has turned out to be true, the way it would become a magnet for Islamic fundamentalists has turned out to be true. They are coming from all over the world, because it’s the best place to fight America.”
There has been suggestion that this is what America wanted. The “flypaper” theory, encapsulated by Bush’s challenge “Bring ‘em on”, has it that America created a battleground in Iraq to save them the trouble of hunting their enemies.
“In that case,” says Galloway, with something very like relish, “their opponents are giving them a bloody good hiding. If this continues to the presidential election, Bush will lose. Every one of those dead soldiers is a local story, and all politics is local. Every congressman, every senator, every ward boss, has to reckon with the fact that handsome Johnny didn’t make it back from the streets of Baghdad, where George Bush sent him, and there’s his poor wife, and his poor orphans standing there as a silent reproach.”
This is typical Galloway – combative, contrary, somewhat melodramatic, but eloquent with it. You don’t have to like Galloway, though at a personal level disliking him is difficult, or agree with him – and disagreeing with him is remarkably easy – to recognise that he is one of the most formidable communicators in the Commons. The Spectator, hardly a natural ally, named him Debater of the Year as recently as 2001.
“Vindicated?” he harumphs. “One normally waits 10 years to be vindicated. I don’t feel I’ve waited even 10 weeks.”
GALLOWAY has not been to his beloved Baghdad since the war. He wants to go, but says he’s being warned off by friends who worry that the current anarchy would make it easy for an accident to be arranged for him. I have been to Galloway’s beloved Baghdad since the war, and tell him it’s just as likely that an accident could happen of its own accord. I put it to him that while we can agree that the invasion was wrong and stupid, the attacks on the occupying forces – the “bloody good hiding” he mentioned – are not helping.
“The Iraqis,” he says, “have a legal and moral right to resist violent, illegal, foreign occupation, and that’s what they’re exercising.”
Would you at least concede that some of the people exercising that right may not be acting from the noblest of motives? That they may not be secular democrats with Iraq’s interests at heart?
“I don’t know that either you or I know who these people are. But that’s what would have been said about the French resistance.”
Hmm. Would you accept that a large sector of the Iraqi population saw the occupation, at least intially, as an opportunity?
“No. I don’t accept that.”
That’s what friends of mine in Baghdad said to me.
“I’m sure they did. But that doesn’t make it a large sector of the population, just because some Iraqis said it to you.”
Would you concede that there is little nostalgia for the rule of Saddam Hussein?
“There is some nostalgia.”
“Not much, no. I said over and over again, it’s on the record, that there are millions of Iraqis who hate Saddam Hussein. There are millions who don’t, though they’re always invisible in the western media. A lot of years had been invested in reducing Iraq from 23 million people to one, and to so demonise that one that any action became justifiable.”
Demonising Saddam Hussein never required that much imagination, did it?
“Well, that demonisation has been very short-lived. I am not an old man, but I have lived in a period in which it was we who were against Saddam who were demonised. Tariq Aziz told me that when we were demonstrating at Downing Street while he was there, Douglas Hurd said to him ‘Don’t worry about these demonstrators, they’re communists and trouble-makers’. And lots of things that have been written about Saddam Hussein were untrue. I suspect that the vast majority of stories about his personal conduct are no more than black propaganda. But if even one percent of them is true, then it justifies my characterisation of him as a brutal dictator, which has always been my characterisation of him.”
And his charming sons?
“I never met Qusay. Never will, now. I did meet Uday, when we did the bus to Baghdad.”
How did you get on?
“He was on his best behaviour, so he didn’t drag any serving wenches in and have them on the desk, or swig from a bottle of brandy, or all the other things that are attributed to him. I will say of him what I said about Saddam. I’m sure the vast majority of stories about him are black propaganda. But if even one percent of them is true – and I’m sure that one percent of them is true – then he was a thoroughly disreputable person.”
Did you ever worry, especially when your name was being traduced along with theirs, that you were starting to identify with these people?
“I never identified with them. I have a very clear political perspective, which I’ve had all of my life, and I don’t identify with people who do not share that perspective, and they did not. They, in very important particulars, fell far short of the kind of political behaviour and conduct that I consider acceptable.”
GALLOWAY’S last contact with the former regime in Iraq was, he recalls, a day or so before the war.
“Tariq Aziz. I called him. Very short conversation, two minutes, three minutes.”
Tariq Aziz was Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Galloway calls him a friend.
“I know he’s being held at the airport. I know he’s ill, that he’s grown his hair down his back like a Rolling Stone, that he obviously can’t get any cigars. I’m in touch with his family – they’re in Jordan.”
Do you feel sorry for him?
“Yes, I do. I admire Tariq Aziz, very much. He’s a sophisticated and interesting man. I noticed with some poignancy, when I saw the television pictures of his wrecked house, that the video of ‘Shakespeare In Love’, which I had taken him, was on the shelf. He was a great Shakespeare man, a great Sinatra man. If Saddam Hussein had listened to him more, Iraq might not be in the mess it’s in today.”
Was your conscience ever troubled by the nature of the regime your friend worked for? Aziz would have been in the room when some fairly unpleasant decisions were made.
Torture. Murder. The regime was guilty of these.
“Yeah, but I’m sure they didn’t discuss that at cabinet. Saddam Hussein wasn’t just numero uno, but the beginning and the end of the dictatorship.”
Do you feel sorry for Saddam Hussein?
Do you think he, at least, got what was coming to him?
“I don’t see it in these personal terms. The Iraqi regime was a dictatorship. It wasn’t the first dictatorship, and it wasn’t the worst dictatorship, but it was a dictatorship, and I am glad it has fallen. I was always against the dictatorship in Iraq. I am for the fall of all dictatorships. I’m just not selective. I’m against all dictatorships all the time. Not just some dictatorships some of the time.”
THIS is more true than people might believe, and less true than I will shortly discover. Galloway was, indeed, a critic of the Iraqi regime at a time when British and American governments fully aware of Saddam’s thuggery were arming him. Even after Galloway began visiting Iraq in the 1990s, he regularly described Saddam as “brutal”, “ruthless” and “vulgar”. However, Galloway’s abhorrence of tyranny is not as absolute as he likes to think. The noticeboard that covers one wall of his office bears portraits of Galloway’s personal idols, some surprising (Churchill, Bobby Moore), some not (Aziz, Arafat, Marx, Guevara, Castro). I make an idle reference to this as a “rogues’ gallery”; Galloway seizes on the phrase.
“I don’t – and I don’t think many readers of The Independent on Sunday – consider Castro or Guevara a rogue. These people are heroes.”
But Castro is a dictator, and you just said. . .
“He’s a hero. Fidel Castro is a hero.”
He’s a dict. . .
“I don’t believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator.”
I honestly can’t think of anything to say to this.
“Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary leader. But for 40 years or more of siege, undoubtedly Cuba would have developed, democratically speaking, differently. But when the enemy is at the gates, spending billions to destroy the revolution, you have to accept that there will be restrictions on political freedoms in a place like Cuba.”
You’ve met El Presidente, I take it.
“Yes. Magnificent. He’s the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met.”
At this, I laugh out loud – as much with delight at Galloway’s fabulous effrontery as with derision at the absurdity of the statement. Fortunately, if one thing can be said to have defined Galloway’s career, it’s fondness for an argument, and he presses on with a grin.
“You won’t get me to resile from this point. He is the greatest man I have ever met, by a country mile. You simply cannot compare Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein or to any other dictator.”
North Korea has been besieged and threatened with invasion for decades as well. That doesn’t mean Kim Jong-Il isn’t a paranoid dingbat.
“I’ve met Kim Jong-Il. You cannot compare the achievements of the Cuban revolution with Kim Jong-Il. You can’t. This is a Reader’s Digest view of the world. I’m surprised at you.”
Possibly nearly as surprised as I am to find a man of Galloway’s love of language celebrating a dictator who doesn’t permit free newpapers. And that’s nothing compared to my astonishment when he laments the demise of the Soviet Union – an oppressive, incompetent, mean-spirited entity which had to build a fence to keep its people in. I wonder out loud if Galloway has ever agreed with the foreign enterprises of his own country.
“Not one shot,” he declares, unhesitatingly. “Not one shot has been fired in a noble cause by Britain or America since 1945.”
The bombing of the Bosnian Serb Army surrounding Sarajevo?
“It was a completely ignoble intervention in Yugoslavia.”
Acting to lift the siege of a European city by a fascist army waging genocide was ignoble? You’re hard to please.
“I’m against big power imperialism. I’m against the idea that Britain and America – especially Britain and America, with their imperialist history – have the right to invade other people’s territory, change their regimes, steal their things. If I have to choose between the Mullocracy in Tehran or a British and American invasion of Iran, I’ll be with the Mullocracy. I think that’s very logical. I’ve never been to Iran. I don’t like the Iranian regime – I’m saying this in case it becomes important later – but if George Bush and Tony Blair invade Iran, I’ll be with Iran.”
Have you ever felt inspired to take up arms yourself in support of your favoured causes? The Lebanese or Palestinian resistance, say?
“I nearly stayed in Lebanon in 1977, and if I had then undoubtedly I would have been drawn into the Palestinian struggle in a more direct way. If I thought it was right, I would have no qualms about fighting for what I believe in. I’m not a pacifist. I’m a former middleweight boxer. I’m Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Boxing Committee. . . and there are many in this building I’d like to go five rounds with.”
GALLOWAY is overdue at SOAS, so we and one of his assistants, a young Palestinian woman called Lara, go in search of a taxi. As we’d wrapped up, I’d asked Galloway if he ever felt lonely.
“I am not,” he said, “a very clubbable person. I don’t do lunch and, quite unusually in this building, I don’t drink. I don’t care very much for most of the people in this building, but I have close friends here. Members of Parliament, members of staff – I’m one of the few people who is on first-name terms with the postmen, the security guards, the cleaners. I wouldn’t like you to think I’m a hermit, because I’m not, but I don’t go to bars, I don’t go to lunch. I still speak to the same people I’ve always spoken to, and I still ignore the same people I’ve always ignored.”
We pass two Labour MPs on our way through the lobby. Jack Straw doesn’t acknowledge Galloway, though in fairness to the Foreign Secretary, he’s engrossed in buying a sandwich, and I don’t think he notices us. Frank Dobson, walking the other way, smiles and winks.
At SOAS, perhaps 200 or so students have turned up; Lara minds the unexpired portion of his cigar while Galloway speaks. His talk is riddled with the archaic terms he enjoys (“indefatigability” is a very Galloway word, as are “calumny” and “brigandage”), and funny: he notes that one of the tigers in Baghdad Zoo has joined the resistance, biting an American soldier (“Though it is not clear,” growls Galloway, “whether the tiger was a so-called Saddam remnant or a fully-fledged member of al-Qaeda”). He peaks with a more or less exact repetition of the first thing he’d said when I’d turned my tape recorder on:
“Manna from Heaven has fallen,” he says “in the announcement of a three-day state visit to Britain by George W. Bush. It is simply unbelievable that Tony Blair should give us this gift. It will be the biggest political mobilisation this country has ever seen. It will crystallise not just British but European opposition to the American administration. All roads will lead to London. A mighty demonstration will shake the walls of Buckingham Palace.”
Back outside, I ask about something he’d said about Aqila al-Hashimi, the member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who’d been assassinated in Baghdad. To me, it sounded like Galloway thought she’d got what she deserved. That was harsh, I suggest. Maybe she was just doing her best for her country in dreadfully compromised circumstances – like your friend Tariq Aziz, perhaps.
“I knew her well,” he says, as he scans Russell Square for a taxi. “She worked in the foreign office in Baghdad. I told her that her name was a term for a Boy Scout leader, and I sent her some Scout paraphernalia, which she was delighted with. So I derive no joy from her death. But I had no idea that lurking within her was the possibility that she would accept the role of a puppet minister.”
He shakes his head, disappointed with yet another person who fails to see the world in his palette of absolutes. As a cab pulls up, Galloway asks if I’ve got enough. Way more than enough, I assure him. I don’t agree with George Galloway about much. I probably wouldn’t vote for him. But voices as articulate as his are valuable and diminishing, and an MP with his contacts in the Middle East could surely be employed, by government and press alike, as something more useful than a punchbag. I’ve half a mind to tell him that I salute his strength, his courage, his indefatigability, but think better of it. Words like that can come back to haunt.
copyright Andrew Mueller