George Galloway

WE, the people, know an awful lot about George Galloway, and a lot of what we know is awful. We know about the various scandals and allegations which have attached themselves to him over the years like barnacles on a man-o’war – infidelity, indiscretion, saluting Saddam Hussein for his indefatigability. Some eagerly ascribe to Galloway, too, a clutch of deadly sins – vanity, wrath, greed and lust. It would be ridiculous, though, to accuse him of sloth; he has been involved in politics since his pre-teens and, after almost 40 years, seems more energised than ever.

So we think we know him but do we really? He certainly has more hinterland than I had realised until I started researching him ahead of our interview. One surprising fact is that he is an American Civil War buff and that his favourite figure from that period is Thomas J Jackson, the Confederate commander known as Stonewall on account of his resolve in the face of the enemy. I came across a quote from Jackson, which I read to Galloway when I meet him in his Westminster office on a hot day in the week following the first London bombs: “A battle always had the effect of brightening my faculties and I always think more clearly, rapidly, and with more satisfaction in the heat of an engagement than at any other time.”

Galloway has never heard this before and looks astonished, although not, of course, lost for words. “That entirely applies to me,” he says. “Isn’t that extraordinary? Oof. It’s almost spooky. That’s a very, very profound connection. Yeah, definitely. I’m quite good in a crisis … and I’ve had lots of practice. Which isn’t the same as saying I look forward to crises; I’d like a peaceful life like anybody else. But, undoubtedly, I rise to the occasion.”

He famously rose to the occasion on May 17, when he testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, which had accused him of profiting from Saddam Hussein’s illegal oil deals. On Capitol Hill, and before a live global audience courtesy of CNN, Galloway brushed aside questioning by Senator Norm Coleman, telling him: “I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington, but, for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice.”

Although Galloway seemed to falter when asked about his relationship with Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian businessman with financial links to the Saddam Hussein regime, his 40-minute testimony, brash yet full of delicate little details, both bull and china shop, was an extraordinary TV moment, and one that did his public image a lot of good; few could fail to be cheered by the spectacle of the rheumy-eyed Scottish underdog biting an American eagle that had expected easy meat.

“I got up at half-three in the morning and worked not on the words I was going to use, but the tone I was going to strike,” Galloway recalls. “I often look for boxing metaphors and the phrase I used was, ‘I mustn’t be Muhammad Ali and I mustn’t be Mike Tyson’. The boxer I fastened on was Rocky Marciano, who was neither flashy nor ferocious. I tried to make my testimony withering. It was intended to be remorseless, unremitting, one point after another in the same tone, no excitement, no great flourishes. It kept me within parliamentary norms in a way that yelling and shouting and histrionics wouldn’t have. That would have been Tyson or Ali. The thing to do was look the adversary in the eye and bear down upon them. That’s the style I worked out and, undoubtedly, that worked well.”

He has been quick to make the most of his moment in the sun. On the table between us as we talk, almost lost among other documents, is a print-out of dates for his forthcoming speaking tour, and a proof of the jacket of his new book, Mr Galloway Goes To Washington, which is being rushed out in America to coincide with the US leg of the jaunt. “Now people are paying money just to give me a standing ovation,” he says, with the satisfied air of a man who believes this is exactly as things should be.

Galloway’s is not a paperless office – sheafs and stacks teeter everywhere; a volume of Hansard falls from a shelf and he wonders aloud whether it is some kind of omen. Details catch the eye – a picture of Fidel Castro, a book of Bob Dylan lyrics, a photograph of Galloway with his daughter, Lucy, now in her early twenties. He’s younger in the photo but still cuts a dash today with his pink shirt, piercing eyes and perpendicular hair. He drinks coffee and smokes a cigar while we talk.

Even by the standards of his extraordinary life, Galloway has had an extraordinary year. On May 5, he was elected to the London constituency Bethnal Green and Bow, defeating the sitting Labour MP Oona King following an ill-tempered and ugly campaign; he is now the sole MP of Respect, the party he founded in January last year, having been expelled from Labour in 2003 for his outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq.

“It’s the first time for 60 years that a left of Labour MP has been elected in England,” he says. “It was widely seen as the one place where the war was really put on trial, and people gave their verdict. And, of course, it was colourful in the extreme, with Islamist fundamentalists threatening to hang me, and all the dirty tricks of New Labour.” You will be able to read about it in his forthcoming book, The Battle For Bethnal Green, to be published over the summer by his own imprint, Friction. The book will also sketch in how Galloway’s split from his second wife, Amineh Abu-Zayyad, coincided with and impacted upon the election. “It took me out of the last Saturday of the campaign,” he says. “I had just stepped down off a pair of high steps, addressing 500 activists who were then being sent out to canvas. As I stepped down, The Sunday Times handed me an envelope with my divorce in it. It was quite dramatic.”

What exactly was in the envelope? “It contained a letter saying they had conducted an extensive interview with my wife and that she intended to divorce me for the following reasons.”

He relights his cigar and acknowledges with a low chuckle that those are not the ideal circumstances in which to hear your wife is leaving. Abu-Zayyad told The Sunday Times she had received a number of phone calls from women who claimed to have had romantic links with her husband. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Galloway said he was determined to save his marriage, but today he refuses to say anything about the current status of the relationship.

Is his reputation as a ladies’ man deserved? “Well, it was at one stage of my life, yes. I once was Gorgeous George.”

Note the past tense. His first marriage, to Elaine Fyffe, his teenage sweetheart, ended after the 1987 revelation that he had had affairs.

“Do you fall in love easily?” I ask.

A long pause. “Yeah, maybe.”

“How many times have you been in love?”

“Quite a few,” he says, shyly.

I ask whether he has found it easier to stay loyal in his political allegiances than his personal relationships. “Yes.”

“And why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m a sinner, as we all are. I suppose I’ve had more opportunities to be in the company of attractive women than most people have and, in matters of the flesh, I have been weak.”

As this turn of phrase suggests, Galloway is a Christian. “I am a believer,” he says. “I don’t worship anywhere, but I believe in God. I believe in a Judgment Day. I believe we are passing through this life, that there’s another life, that our conduct in this life is evaluated and weighed, that every human life is given by God and must be respected as having been made by God. These are religious beliefs that I have held for most of my life, and I cling to them. I haven’t lost my faith at all. I don’t wear it on my sleeve but it informs my political philosophy.” He believes George W Bush is faking his faith for political advantage: “Everything that Bush does seems to me to blaspheme the very idea of God.”

Galloway has never considered converting to Islam but says “socialism and Islam are very close, other than on the issue of the existence of God. We are synthesising the socialist idea with religious ideas in Britain in a way no-one else in the world is doing. It’s one of the reasons for the success of the Stop The War Coalition. It’s one of the reasons for the success of Respect”.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Galloway did turn away from the church for a time as a young man, but returned in his mid-twenties. During an abortion debate within the Labour Party in Dundee, he came out as pro-life. “I broke with the vast majority of my left-wing friends over that issue at that time, which would have been 1980. I think that brought me back to a more clearly defined religious position.”

Galloway’s sense of morality intrigues me and I can’t help but wonder whether there is a part of him that tries to make up for bad decisions in his personal life by following noble causes in public life? “I believe that people know when they are doing the wrong thing,” he replies. “And undoubtedly, because I am a sinner like anybody else, you feel guilty about the committing of sins and you try to expiate them. That’s the essence of being forgiven for your sins. So, yeah, that may very well be true. I hope that I also try in my personal life to expiate them. But I do think it’s a totality. This may all sound crazy to you but if you believe, like me, that you will be judged one day, then you believe you’ll be judged on everything. So your public good will be weighed against any private bad you may have done.”

So how does he think it’s going? “Only God knows that,” he laughs. “Only God knows that.”

It would be good if you could see those scales, wouldn’t it?

“Yes! If you could see them you could adjust them. You could rapidly tack to adjust them.”

This may be a simplistic reading but it’s fascinating to think that when Galloway is campaigning against the occupation of Iraq or speaking up for Palestinian refugees, he is doing so, partly, to compensate for personal failings. Especially as his views so often bring him into conflict with the political and media mainstream. There’s something almost masochistic about the way he seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, frying pan to fire. The Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart recently wrote that Galloway nurtures himself with the hatred others feel for him, but I have also heard that some of the larger scandals of his career have left him depressed and low.

“Neither is true,” he insists. “I don’t get depressed and low, but I do get marked by controversies. Nobody likes to be lashed in a storm, even if they are quite good at performing in a storm. And the idea that anyone would like to be hated is absurd. Of course I would rather walk into the House of Commons to universal approbation. But if the price of saying what you think is to bring hate upon yourself … ” He shrugs.

Galloway loves the works of William Shakespeare and, asked with which of his characters he most identifies, he answers: “I would like to be identified with Macduff, who overthrew the tyrant in the Scottish play.” Of course, there is a big difference between wanting to be identified with someone and actually identifying with them. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually felt some empathy for Caliban from The Tempest, who once expected to wield power over his island but is instead loathed and abused. There was something undeniably Shakespearian in Adam Ingram’s recent description of Galloway “dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood”.

The Armed Forces Minister’s remarks were prompted by Galloway’s speech in the Commons on July 7, the day of the first London bombs, in which he argued that the terrorist attacks were caused by UK involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Britain is almost on an equal par in Muslim countries with Israel and the United States as one of the most hated countries in the world,” Galloway insists now. “That is Blair’s responsibility. He did that, and he can hardly act surprised when this kind of obscene blowback occurs. Of course, it is never him or his family that pay the price. It’s Rose Gentle’s son who gets killed in Iraq; it’s some other mother’s son who gets killed on the number 30 bus.”

Since Galloway made his speech, public opinion has shifted somewhat in his direction but in the Commons that day he was completely isolated, partly because it was felt he was being opportunistic and disrespectful to the families of victims, making a political point on a day which should have been about unity and grief. But he insists: “I didn’t have any choice. I knew that nobody else would say it, so I had to say it.”

Why was he the only MP willing to articulate that point of view? “I don’t know. There were even people in the chamber who didn’t rise to say the things I said, who told me afterwards they agreed with every word of it. On all sides of the House.”

Doesn’t he get sick of having to be the maverick? “Well, I don’t acknowledge the word ‘maverick’ but I definitely get sick of it. I get fucking sick of it.” He laughs, bitterly. “But I don’t think that point of view could have gone unrepresented in the Commons. That would have rendered the Commons completely irrelevant to the feelings of people outside. But in the days that followed, and including today, I walked around London, often alone, never with any kind of escort, and not one person had said a cross word to me about the intervention that I made. This despite The Sun calling me the most vile traitor in Britain. Normally, that would be a cue for a queue of people to insult me but it hasn’t been on this occasion, which leads me to believe people are not as stupid as the prime minister would like to think.”

Galloway may dislike being a man apart but he certainly seems drawn to other demonised figures of global politics. He has gone swimming in the Caribbean dawn with Fidel Castro, feasted on hard-boiled eggs and tea at midnight with Yasser Arafat, and been offered Quality Street by Saddam Hussein. He has sometimes appeared ahead of the curve in terms of who he is willing to deal with – in 1989, he was heavily criticised for appearing at a public event with Gerry Adams, six years before Bill Clinton’s famous handshake with the Sinn Fein leader.

He is, of course, still trying to live down his famous 1994 meeting with Saddam Hussein, in which he was seen on TV saying: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Galloway insists that when he used the word ‘your’, he meant it as a plural and was, in fact, praising the entire Iraqi people, not their president. On this point, he isn’t very convincing, although there is no doubt, as he was keen to point out during his Senate hearing, that he has been a long-time public opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime.

I am more troubled by his relationship with Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister. How can Galloway condemn the regime yet enjoy a friendship with one of the most significant men within it?

By way of an answer, he refers me to the good character of Aziz, who is a Christian – “he is an extraordinarily urbane, intelligent, philosophical, religious person”. He goes on to say that “the Saddam regime committed many crimes against the Iraqi people, real crimes. Almost all of them were committed during the time that Britain and America were the closest friends of the Iraqi dictatorship. Tariq Aziz was a regular visitor in Downing Street and I was standing outside demonstrating. And that’s a paradox, I’ll grant you. But there is no doubt, as I’m sure any show trials that might follow will make clear, that, like all dictatorships, the dictator took all the decisions. The dictator, for example, did not ask his comrades whether or not they should invade Kuwait”.

Surely, though, he is complicit in anything the regime did? “Well, I don’t think that’s correct … If Saddam Hussein had listened to Tariq Aziz, the world and Iraq would not be in as bad a state as it is today. So I accept your disapproval, and understand it, but all I can say is if you knew Tariq Aziz you would understand things better.”

Galloway has been an outspoken opponent of both Gulf wars and was expelled from the Labour party particularly in response to comments he made on Abu Dhabi TV in 2003, in which he referred to Tony Blair and George Bush as “wolves” attacking Iraq, urged British soldiers not to serve in an illegal war, and asked: “Iraq is fighting for all the Arabs. Where are the Arab armies? We wonder when the Arab leaders will wake up. When are they going to stand by the Iraqi people?”

He has been quite clear in his condemnation of suicide bombers, both in London and elsewhere, who target civilians. However, he supports Iraqi resistance to British and American troops.

“I think the decision the Iraqis have made to resist foreign occupation is a heroic decision,” he says. “The individual acts carried out by people in the name of resistance may or may not be heroic. Some are undoubtedly heroic. The storming of a military barracks of a more powerful adversary in a classic guerrilla warfare operation is undoubtedly heroic. The bombing of children taking sweeties from an American soldier is clearly not heroic.”

Although Galloway broadcasts regularly in Iraq, via internet radio, he says he will not return to the country while it is occupied. “I really miss Iraq in the way a man would miss a woman he loves. Iraq physically affected me a lot. I grew to love the rhythms of the rivers, the call to prayer from the mosques, and the people. I was very, very much liked in Iraq because so few people stood up for the people there and tried to bring their suffering to an end. They say Iraqis make good friends and bad enemies. We are certainly discovering the latter now, and I found out the former. They kind of took me to their heart and I felt that Iraq entered my bloodstream, and I don’t think it will leave.

“Now, at meetings, someone will often come up at the end, usually crying, and they will say they come from Iraq, and they will mention a town. I always have a special embrace for them because I really feel very close to the Iraqi people. Very, very close.”

It must be a nice change of pace to visit a country where people like him (not that we should overstate his unpopularity within Britain – he has won five elections) and his recent memoir, I’m Not The Only One, contains hilariously self-aggrandising accounts of the esteem in which he is held by Arab people. “How did it come to pass,” he asks in beyond-spoof style, “that a working-class boy from a small Scottish city, the grandchild of immigrants and the child of factory workers, should become so absorbed in the Orient that I could be better known in the souks and bazaars of Arabia and the teeming shanties of Lahore and Karachi than my own country?”

One point of connection between Galloway and the Muslim world is that he has never drunk alcohol. “My father didn’t drink alcohol and his father didn’t and my daughter doesn’t,” he says. “It’s something in the genes.”

“But why don’t you drink?” I ask.

“I kind of disapprove of it, really. I think it has a very deleterious effect on people. I know because I’m out in public life that the more people have drunk the worse they behave. The whole atmosphere of pubs and the smell of drink is just something I don’t like.”

This is one of the reasons he prefers the company of women. “I don’t have any wish to go out for a night with the boys and I probably wouldn’t be the best company for the boys, who might want to get drunk and rock’n’roll, which is just not me, really. I don’t like aggressive male company.”

He admits his distaste for booze feeds his dislike of George Bush, a former heavy drinker, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens, with whom Galloway clashed before his Senate hearing. Galloway seems to feel a need to always be in control, which may partly explain why he is so litigious, and so he is naturally uneasy with the loss of control caused by drinking.

“Alcohol takes over people – I see it all the time. In the Labour movement, on the left, it’s kind of an occupational hazard. You see people become someone else by dint of their use of alcohol, and it’s seldom a pretty sight.” He says he has “saved” two current members of the Cabinet from alcoholism. His unwillingness to network in the bars of the Commons and elsewhere may partially explain Galloway’s political isolation, although the various controversies and his unpopular position on the Middle East have damaged him significantly. It could all have been so different; he is in some ways the Orson Welles of British politics – the wünderkind left wondering where it all went wrong.

He started in politics at a very young age. When he was 11, he wangled membership of the Young Socialists, though he was four years too young even for them. By 26, he was the youngest ever chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland and was said to fancy himself as a future foreign secretary. However, scandals and Labour’s continuing move to the right have counted against him. He was, and remains, close to Tony Benn. Had Benn been elected deputy leader of Labour in 1981, Galloway says he would have moved to London to work for him.

“I would have entered Parliament earlier and would have reached high office. But I didn’t want it enough to change my views. That’s a key difference. There were lots of people in that left trend with me who used to denounce me as right-wing.” He cites Alistair Darling, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn. “John Reid was in the Communist Party. These people regarded me as a reformist. In fact, that was the term of abuse they used.”

Surely he must look at those like Reid, now secretary of state for defence and close to the prime minister, and think “I coulda been a contender”?

“I don’t really,” he says, “because I really wouldn’t want to be in the place they’re in, which is effectively presiding over a monstrosity the very opposite of what they used to believe in. I pity them. People like John Reid, whom I know to know better, I feel sorry for because they cannot in all conscience be content in their hearts that what they are doing is right.”

I tell him that I found it exhausting to read through the newspaper cuttings which describe his storm-tossed career. “It was exhausting to live it!” he hoots. “Absolutely. My levels of energy surprise me. It’s partly, I think, to do with not being a drinker. But people say to me virtually daily, ‘You’ll need to take it easy, you’ll need to slow down, you’ll need to take a break’. And I never really feel that I do.”

He does not intend to seek re-election in Bethnal Green and Bow. However he may stand in another constituency or for the European Parliament. “I might stand for Mayor of London if Ken Livingstone chucks it.”

Galloway is 50 now, a grandfather. His mother, daughter and close friends worry about him; after almost four decades of political battling, isn’t it time to hang up his gloves? “But I have a different feeling,” he says. “I have a feeling of lack of time. Time is short and running out and there is so much to do. A lot of things depend on me now in Respect and I am acutely conscious of that. If we had 10 leaders who could fill halls, that would be much better for everybody concerned. I am conscious that I could go on this US tour and face some Jack Ruby moment, and what would happen to Respect then?”

The killing of Gorgeous George? It would certainly be a dramatic final scene and it says something about Galloway’s embattled mindset that this occurs to him as a possibility. In I’m Not The Only One, he writes about his visit to Beirut in 1977; he found life in the war zone blissful. He returned to Britain to pursue his political career but muses with seeming regret: “I might have become a kind of foreign-legion figure with the Palestinians. I might have fought, maybe died, with them in the internecine wars that would soon rage.”

Instead, in a sense, Galloway has internalised Beirut, and has spent much of his life in a constant state of emergency; the flashpoints and hotspots that would cause great stress for most people have become, for him, quite normal. “I just assume there will be another crisis along in a minute,” he laughs, eyes flashing through a cloud of smoke.

“And I am usually right.”