‘1.5 Million Muslims Know Who I Am’

Greg Palast is a radical campaigning journalist and author. He broke the British ‘Lobbygate’ scandal of 1999, which revealed that the Labour government was twisting policy to fit the needs of its financial backers. He revealed how George Bush stole the presidency in 2000 and continues to make the case that Bush stole the presidency in 2004. He is one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war.

He encountered British MP George Galloway in 2003 and initially defended him:

I sought additional material from Galloway and other sources to bolster that defense and to my surprise, found more that damned him than supported him. As a journalist, I could not bury the findings.

Throughout his career, Galloway has been accused of a large amount of financial skullduggery. From his days at the charity War on Want and the Dundee Labour clubs, to the Mariam Appeal and the Oil for Food programme, he leaves a trail of empty wallets and bitter recrimination. Yet what emerges is nothing so grand as fraud or embezzlement; it’s missing taxi receipts, mysterious break-ins, the chiselling and cutting of corners. Galloway’s life, on paper, is a murky fog through which transactions and motives can occasionally be discerned.

The difficulty for Galloway’s biographer and every other writer is that it is almost impossible to discuss the evidence against him. Galloway is fond of the British libel laws, that friend of the ruling class that places the burden of proof entirely on the defendant. David Morley knows this and, wisely, keeps things nebulous. His book states that, ‘when journalists ask [Galloway] questions about his lifestyle he will sometimes jokingly refer to the help he has had from Fleet Street.’

In her published diaries, House Music, Galloway’s opponent Oona King says that:

For legal reasons, I have had to leave out many interesting sections of this diary relating to George Galloway… When either he or I is six foot under, they can be exhumed. Until then, suffice to say, there is more than enough in the public domain that gives pause for thought about the way George Galloway chooses to operate.

So let’s follow King and Morley in sticking to the public domain. What do we know about George Galloway?

Galloway has said that ‘the disappearance of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of my life.’ To Saddam Hussein, he said, ‘I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem!’ We know that Galloway signed a petition demanding the release of Saddam’s number-two Tariq Aziz, with whom Galloway once danced in a North African nightclub. The Iraqi ‘resistance’, jihadis who kill civilians, socialists and aid workers, is ‘defending all the Arabs, and they are defending all the people of the world from American hegemony.’ When trade unionists broke down in tears at their recollections of torture under Ba’athists, Galloway sneered that their visible emotion was ‘a party trick’. He called Iraqi trade union leader Abdullah Muhsin an ‘Iraqi Quisling’. He said of the Syrian dictator that ‘Syria is lucky to have Bashar al-Assad as her President.’ We know that he described Hamas as a ‘Palestinian national resistance movement, analogous to the organisations fighting for freedom in Kashmir,’ and said at a London antiwar rally that ‘I AM HERE to glorify the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, and I AM HERE to glorify the resistance leader, Hassan Nasrallah.’ He has also said that ‘in poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians… only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together.’

All this makes Galloway’s alleged financial corruption seem almost irrelevant.

Yet his reputation in the West was of a principled maverick, speaking truth to power. And this is the approach that Morley takes. His preface states that, ‘In broad terms, I am on the same side as George Galloway regarding the Middle East… In my view, Galloway was right that invading Iraq was the wrong decision.’ Galloway comes across as a bit dodgy and a bit extremist but right about one big thing.

Although Morley is a little naïve about his subject, he provides bang-on insights. The nickname, ‘Gorgeous George,’ comes from a 1985 press conference at which Galloway was being grilled about his adventures at War on Want. In particular, he had claimed a £186 bill from a Mykonos restaurant as expenses for a trip to an Athens conference. Journalist Brian McCartney asked, ‘Obviously, there is some interest that you travelled to Greece in the company of someone else, presumably a female. Is that the case?’ Galloway’s current partner was also at this restaurant; what McCartney was driving at was that he had been drinking sangria with his girlfriend at the expense of a humanitarian charity.

After some flapping and dodging, Galloway said this:

I travelled to, and spent time in, Greece with lots of people, many of whom were women… some of whom were known carnally to me. Some of whom were known carnally to me. I actually had sexual intercourse with some of the people in Greece.

It was classic Galloway. There were a few days of tabloid headlines and he looked foolish for a while. But being known as a womaniser does not do your long-term reputation any harm. And the relevant issue – that Galloway may or may not have diverted charitable funds for his own personal use – was blown out of the water.

Another anecdote stands out. In 1988, Pakistan’s dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq died. Galloway described the event, accurately, as the ‘death of a hangman.’ Bad move. Several imams condemned Galloway’s attack. Although other Pakistani Muslims agreed with Galloway’s criticisms of Zia’s rule, the lesson was learnt: ‘Since then,’ Morley says, ‘he has been very careful to cultivate his relations with ethnic groups, particularly in Bethnal Green and Bow.’

Too right. Out of all the government MPs who voted for the war, Galloway chose Oona King to defeat in the nastiest campaign of the 2005 general election. Oona wasn’t a Blair Babe. She was a serious leftwing politician who voted against the government’s anti-terror laws on civil liberties grounds. When interviewed, she would agree to talk on only two issues: housing and genocide. A hardworking constituency MP, King was sidelined by New Labour because she refused to write an article condemning Ken Livingstone, who was then running against the party for London Mayor.

She agonised over the vote for war and finally backed it on humanitarian grounds. That was enough. Galloway could tell Bethnal’s 36% Muslim population that Labour were making war on Muslims abroad and making war on Muslims at home. His party workers drove through the streets, shouting through megaphones, ‘Every vote for Labour is a bullet in the back of an Iraqi child.’ The campaign turned into a referendum on Iraq. Local Labour man Josh Peck gives this account of a typical ‘debate’:

Oona and George both agreed to speak in a public meeting, the first head-to-head. There were about twenty residents and another forty or fifty Respect supporters who booed, heckled and jeered Oona whenever she spoke. It’s a very effective technique… There were another couple of teachers there who were well-known SWP [Socialist Workers Party] activists. They said things like, ‘If it wasn’t for you killing Iraqi babies, we could afford to keep that fire engine.’ Even this came back to the war.

Galloway’s Respect party was an alliance between the SWP and conservative Muslims. To keep its new friends on board, the party threw out its commitments to secularism, female equality and gay rights, which SWP leader Lindsey German dismissed as a ‘shibboleth.’ That is Galloway’s legacy, if nothing else: he has brought the communalism of the BNP into left-wing politics, and brought religious reaction into left-wing politics.

Yet these are hard times for Galloway. He has been discredited by an ill-advised appearance on a game show, in which he made light of a fellow contestant’s alcohol problem and declared that he was the most famous person on the programme because ‘1.5 billion Muslims know who I am.’

His Respect party has descended into internal warfare. The SWP expelled many of Galloway’s supporters, and activist Rania Khan spoke at a meeting of ‘the excitement she felt when first joining Respect and how she looked forward to attending meetings, now she is scared of the arguments, the bullying and threatening behaviour.’ In response, Galloway shouted, ‘off you go – fuck off, fuck off the lot of you,’ and later locked the SWP out of Respect’s offices. It’s a long, hilarious story, and you can read the whole thing on Harry’s Place.

This kind of internecine farce seems to be a pattern. Oona King says:

Once the press reported that Galloway was suing me in December 2004, more and more people contacted my office with information about past events, many of them still incandescent with rage at Mr Galloway’s behaviour – even years later. I had been unaware that his career trajectory often followed a pattern: initially received with open arms by a group or organisation placing great faith in him, they then felt betrayed, and denounced him in the strongest terms.

Now, we on the Euston left are often accused of being a little obsessed with George Galloway; ‘turning,’ in Johann Hari’s words, ‘towards Galloway to give him another deserved – but increasingly irrelevant – spit in the face.’

There’s some truth in that, but interest in Galloway goes beyond his actual influence; he fascinates as a symbol, a freakshow, a grotesque parody of leftwing politics. And one of the qualities I admire about Galloway is his resilience, and his ability to make a comeback; he walks away from the smoking ruins, whistling, cigar in hand, already thinking of the next opportunity, and planning his next big score.

There are murmurs that Galloway may stand for the Poplar seat. It looks as if Gorgeous George isn’t done yet.

Gorgeous George: The Life and Adventures of George Galloway, David Morley, Politicos 2007

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