It sounds like George Galloway will be running for London mayor in 2016. He claimed as much after I met him at his offices in Westminster earlier this month – and it was a claim that was later confirmed by a member of his PR team.
Weirdly, when we subsequently asked him to elaborate, he retracted the claim over email – a pretty brusque email, sent via an aide, which read simply: "It is NOT confirmed. GG". Either way, it seems like the time may be coming for London to finally make its mind up about a man who, over the course of a 30-year political career, has not so much split opinion as atomised it. In that time, many shady accusations have been thrown his way, but through a combination of biblical self-belief, stage presence and due process, he's managed to survive them. When the courts have heard the allegations levelled against him – like the one that he received money from Saddam Hussein's regime, or that he pocketed proceeds from the Oil-for-Food Programme – they've offered him not just vindication, but millions of pounds in libel damages and legal costs.
Since his expulsion from the Labour Party over comments made about the 2003 Iraq War – he encouraged soldiers to refuse orders from their superiors and referred to the government as "Tony Blair's lie machine" – he's been a constant pillorying presence at the edges of British politics. Now an MP for Respect – he was the party's first – Galloway isn't everyone's antidote of choice to the bland, gormless sadsacks sat on the Commons' front benches. However, at this stage he does appear to be one of the only antidotes, while continuing to divide political onlookers.
Should we admire the man who's been a pain in the establishment's side for decades, or oppose the man who's made some pretty questionable statements about sexual assault and storms out of debates with Israelis? When calm, slick, watertight (but essentially passionless) politics reigns, how do you solve a problem like George Galloway – a man who led an aid convoy to Palestine but repeatedly lost his shit in the direction of the audience to his old TalkSport radio show?
I figured the best way to find out would be to pay the man a visit, to talk Blair, the nuances of "lovemaking" and the potential for change in British politics.
VICE: Can you tell me about the film you’re working on, The Killing of Tony Blair?
George Galloway: It’s not, of course, a film in which I kill Tony Blair, although it is often mistaken for that. It is not our intention to kill Tony Blair. I don’t believe in killing people.
It will expose the killing of the Labour Party by Tony Blair, it will expose the killing of a million people in Iraq and untold numbers in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and it will expose the killing that Mr Blair is making out of the previous two killings. He was receiving handsome reward from the late Colonel Gaddafi and is currently receiving a very handsome sum from several Arabian Gulf leaders and dictators as pay-back for his role in the destruction of Iraq. No prime minister in Britain has ever cashed in on their time in office in this way and it sends a very corrupting message to today’s rulers.
When was the last time you saw Tony Blair?
I suppose the day he left here.
If you saw him at an event or in public, what would happen?
I would try to affect a citizen’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But as we are paying for [his] very large phalanx of security personnel – we’re paying it, despite his very high earnings – I expect that would be quite difficult.
Given the accusations that have been made against you in the past, wouldn’t it have been tempting to disappear from politics altogether?
You mean the accusations that gave me millions in damages?
Yes. How did they affect your day-to-day existence?
Well, it made me very rich. Saddam Hussein never gave me one thin dime, but the newspapers that accused me of having received money from Saddam Hussein had to give me a total of £2.75 million, so thanks very much. The media has been remarkably reckless with me. I’ve just been in the chamber. When I got in, the chairs were full, but people made way for me to sit in my normal chair because I’ve been here for 26 years. There is no rule to say you have to, but there’s a protocol, if you like. If I stand up in the House of Commons, people at least know that what I’m going to say won’t be boring.
So, it wasn’t difficult coming back from that?
No. If someone lies about you and the court vindicates you, you shouldn’t be the one to disappear.
That's a very resilient attitude, I guess.
Chumbawamba’s wonderful anthem is mine: "I get knocked down, but I get up again…"
Okay. You took a trip to Beirut in ‘77, after which you said you wanted to devote your life to fighting for the Arab and Palestinian cause. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
In 1975, I was working alone in the Labour office when a man came persistently knocking at the door. He was leader of the Palestinian student union, GUPS, at Dundee University. I sat and spoke to him, covered in ink from printing leaflets, the dust dancing in the sunlight, and he spoke for about two hours about the Palestinian people. By the end of that conversation, I was a recruit to the Palestinian resistance.
By 1977, I was already quite prominent because there were so few of us – supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was quite an extreme thing to do. I was asked to go among a group of activists to Beirut during a lull in the Lebanese civil war, which had been – and was again afterwards – an extremely bloody affair. We visited all of the Palestinian camps and met all of the Palestinian leaders, including President Arafat, who took a liking to me. We became very close friends for the next 30 years or so. I was at his bedside in Paris when he died.
Your use of the term "Zionism" in the context of Palestine has caused a lot of controversy, with a lot of people reading it as "Jewishness"…
Some genuinely mistake it, others deliberately do so because, of course, that is the first line of defence for Zionists – to imply that an attack on Zionism is an attack on Jewish people. Most of the people defending Israel are not Jews and many of them don’t even like Jews. There ain’t any Jews at George Bush’s golf club in Texas, only WASPs. It’s important to stress that we are against the apartheid ideology of Zionism, which states that Jews in England are not really English and that Jews in France are not really French – that they must go and live in someone else’s country instead. This is the mirror image of fascism.
Do you stand against the principle of partisan politics, or just the three main political parties in this country?
What we have today is really just groups of football fans cheering their leader, whatever he has to say. I was just in PMQs and there were many people sitting around me, their faces contorted in hate towards the other side, when all they were arguing about was sixpence. Ed Miliband spent the entire session talking about a freeze on gas and electricity prices. First of all, the freeze is for 20 months; secondly, it’s a one-off saving of £125 per person. And he’s talking about it as if it’s a world-changing idea.
But if you don’t toe that line, you’re placed on the outside. Can you really affect change from the outside?
Change will never occur inside Westminster. Change will have to be imposed upon this building by the outside, and so it is my duty to go around everywhere I can, and through any medium I can, to build the strength of the demand for change.
Where will that change come from?
Public opinion. If it weren't for the pressure of the public expressing their opinion just a few weeks ago, we would already be in the middle of a very big war. But now Britain is reopening its embassy in Tehran. Obama and the new Iranian president are throwing flowers at each other.
Is this how you imagined your career to look when you first started out in politics?
I never saw it as a career, I always saw it as a life. I have been very lucky in that I have been – since I was very young – able to spend all of my time on politics in one form or another.
There are no circumstances, presumably, in which you would rejoin the Labour Party?
One should never say never in politics. If Labour became Labour again, then I would have to re-evaluate my attitude. But I cannot foresee these circumstances ever arising. Mr Benn remains my political father and I’m still friends with Jeremy Corbyn and many others, but I can’t say I care for the New Labour intake.
Do you stand by what you said about the Assange rape allegations, suggesting he was merely exhibiting "bad sexual etiquette"?
I don’t think people have understood what I was saying. I know Julian Assange very well. I know the case in microscopic detail and I am absolutely certain that Julian Assange has been the victim of a set-up to render him to the United States authorities so he can be sent to the same dungeon as Chelsea Manning and never heard from again. To say so is not to trivialise rape, which is a horrific, brutal crime that should be punished severely.
I think the issue a lot of people had with your statement was the suggestion that having sex with someone while they're sleeping is legitimate if you've had sex with them the night before.
She was not asleep. He did not have sex with her while she was asleep. And it was not the night before, it was two hours before. It was a session of lovemaking that all of your readers will recognise, if only from the movies. It is absurd to say that couples verbalise the question, "Can I?" Nobody in the real world lives like that. Let me restate what I said at the time: no means no. No never means yes. Rape is an appalling, vicious crime that should be severely punished. But innocent people should not be set-up.
So just to clarify, do you acknowledge that, if somebody was asleep and somebody else started having sex with them while they were unconscious, it would be a traumatic experience for which the perpetrator should be punished?
No, you see, you can’t even say that. I apologise if this is a bit near the knuckle, but I saw a Guardian journalist say on Newsnight, "So, if a husband wakes up with his wife holding his dick in her hand, has his wife assaulted him?" This is the land of the absurd. If a woman says, or indicates in a non-verbal way, that she doesn’t want [sex] and the man persists, he’s guilty of sexual assault, harassment and, depending on how far it goes, rape. But if I wake up tomorrow morning to my wife making love to me, I’m sorry, that is not a crime. It’s just not. And nobody in the real world thinks it is.
Do you think that in the past you’ve risen to the bait a bit? Have you ever thought to yourself, 'I wish I hadn’t risen to that, I wish I’d just stepped away'?
Yeah, sure. If you speak millions of words, as I do, they’re not all going to be of the same calibre. But not in general.
Folders in George Galloway's Westminster office
You have a very distinctive way of talking.
I like words and I use words that most people don’t use – I like to encourage people to think. We have a wonderful language and we ought to be better at using it. The OECD figures yesterday showed that our children are no better at the English language, or other things for that matter, than their grandparents were, and that’s despite huge budgets.
What do you read?
I used to be a fanatical reader of newspapers, but now I don’t buy any newspapers at all. I read online all the time, all day and all night. I don’t sleep that much. I was reading online until 2.30AM this morning.
Would you say that you’re quite an intense person?
I’m really not. The reason why I was reading at two o’clock in the morning is that my wife fell asleep after we had watched five episodes in a row of Modern Family. We watch the X Factor. I know that’s not very cool, but it’s true. I have box sets by the dozen. I was in HMV on Oxford Street last Saturday and spent over £200 on box sets. No, I’m really not intense. I’m fun. I hate boringness. Bores really bore me.
Is there anything you’d really like to get across to our readers?
Change is happening. Last night we were among very rich children, and the night before in an equally rich school – they were waiting on my every word. Okay, I’m a good speaker, but it’s not just because of that. It’s because everybody knows that the political class has failed. It has no answers to the deep-seated problems that we have. There is a hunger among young people for a different kind of country, a different kind of world. That’s why I have big audiences and mainly young audiences. This is a very dangerous, divided, unequal world that we have. And we have to restore it to equilibrium.
The prevailing style in Westminster is exemplified by Mr Blair’s comment that once you learn to fake the sincerity, the rest is easy [Tony Blair never said this – it's a famous Bob Monkhouse quote]. But young people, more than any other, can see through fake sincerity very quickly. I speak to my followers several times a day on social media, so why should I travel across London to be barracked by Jeremy Paxman?
I assume you’re referring to the Oona King interview in 2005?
They teach that at journalism school now – what not to do. He’s become a parody of himself. Have you seen his beard?
There is always the question of whether Galloway is entirely aware and in control of his public persona. It might be buried beneath a million long words, but he definitely has a sense of humour – a dark sense of humour – which is completely imperceptible apart from the slight widening of his ravaged-looking eyes at certain moments.
Whatever your criticism of his politics – and he invites debate, so long as your ammo is fact-checked – it would be fair to say that Galloway at least believes he is driven by something other than servitude to his own ego. Don’t get me wrong: he has an ego, a gargantuan one. But when he speaks about the Palestinian cause and his wish for strong leadership in British politics, I believe him.
Appearing in One Direction music videos isn't going to win you the youth vote. But maintaining a stance – no matter how ludicrous it seems – and defending it with all the energy of a 20-year-old, instead of regurgitating what you think the voter wants to hear, just might. Galloway, for all his faults, seems to be one of very few people in British politics who really understand this.
Tom Johnson's website is here.
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