Current Edition

Galloway . . . living in his own bubble

Current edition, Volume Number 35 Number 2 June 2024

“George Galloway has spent all of his life in a bubble, believing it is the world.” When I wrote a biography of Galloway some years ago, that comment to me by Neil Kinnock seemed to sum him up pretty well. At the time, Galloway’s myopia made him unusual and fascinating.

Since Gorgeous George: The Life and Adventures of George Galloway was published in 2007, the world has turned and we are suffering a plague of politicians living in bubbles of their own hobbled imaginations. These bubbles, inflated by social media, sustained by our post-truth culture and floating up on rabble-rousing outbursts from the likes of Braverman and Trump, make Galloway look like he was a warning to us all. We call them echo chambers now.

Why Galloway? That was what the former Labour MP Oona King asked me. We were in the US making a programme for Radio 4 about her family’s part in the civil rights movement, and when his name came up, I had to admit to writing a biography of the man who’d derailed her political career. That was slightly awkward, as it was just the two of us driving across Georgia, but we got over it once I explained that it was unauthorised and he’d threatened to set his lawyers on to me.

As I explained to Oona, in 2006 I produced an hour-long BBC radio profile of the then-MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, presented by Clive Anderson. Galloway had recently won a high profile and lucrative libel suit against The Daily Telegraph, had been to Washington to take on the George W Bush government over Iraq, and had still found time to be locked up on Celebrity Big Brother. His life and career were simultaneously mired in and boosted by controversy. He was the perfect subject, Clive and I thought, for one in a series of profiles that included other complex and perhaps flawed characters, such as Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Galloway agreed to come on the programme and talk about himself. A subject he likes. Clive and I were both a little apprehensive. After all, this was a man who had recently chewed up a US Senate committee over the invasion of Iraq and didn’t take media prisoners. However, he arrived promptly, in good humour, smartly dressed, and, I seem to remember, puffing on an expensive-looking cigar. Before we started, he asked for directions to the toilet. Clive, whip sharp as usual, piped up “out of the booth, hard left and then left again, George. You shouldn’t have any trouble with that”. Galloway was stony-faced. I held my breath waiting for a riposte, but none came. Christ, Clive, I thought. At least the Bee Gees got to sit down before they stormed out. Galloway turned on his Cuban heels and walked off down the corridor, possibly never to return.

My lawyer saw off the man in the cat suit

He did, of course, and the interview went very well. He was combative, verbose but entertaining. In his wake, I wondered why there hadn’t been a biography of one of the best-known politicians in the country. Maybe I should write it. Remarkably, no one tried to put me off, despite the foolhardiness of taking on the notoriously litigious “member for Baghdad Central”. The reasons no one else had done it before me were to become clear as the process unfolded.

After Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, where he found a new fanbase by dressing as a cat and licking milk from Rula Lenska’s bowl, I found an agent who thought there was commercial potential and very quickly a deal appeared with Politico. The advance was small, but hey, I didn’t want to give up my day job making radio anyway. So, off I went.

About 18 months later, as the final touches were being put to Gorgeous George: The Life and Adventures of George Galloway, comments began to appear in newspaper diaries that Galloway was instructing his lawyers to stop publication. I had a meeting with a lawyer provided by the publisher, who hadn’t read the book in detail and whose only advice was on its “tone”. I started to worry that this might all go badly. Then my great friend lobby correspondent Julia Langdon rode to the rescue. She suggested I get in touch with a chap called Arthur Davidson QC. Who’s that? I asked. Arthur is one of the cleverest lawyers I know, and was a minister in Wilson’s government, she replied. A lunch ensued, at which the lovely Arthur agreed to “legal” the book in his time out from being the lawyer for Time Out. Thank God for Arthur Davidson! I was in safe hands and Galloway’s lawyers went away.

Incidentally, a few more lunches followed with Arthur, who is now no longer with us, sadly. He made me laugh when he remembered, as a Labour minister, drafting the legislation for legalising homosexuality in the armed forces. They thought they’d put the wording to bed, only to be advised that they had not just made it legal, they’d made it compulsory.

The fear of being sued might have put more sensible people off writing about Galloway. In 2004, The Daily Telegraph’s David Blair (named 2001 Young Journalist of the Year by the Foreign Press Association and later made a CBE in Boris Johnson’s honours) became the centre of the paper’s libel fight with Galloway after he “happened” on documents in Iraq that implicated the MP in the food-for-oil programme. The Telegraph didn’t defend the truth of the allegations, preferring to argue that the public interest was sufficient to justify the reporting. Unsurprisingly, Blair wouldn’t talk to me about what happened behind the scenes at the Telegraph, but they lost the case, and paid up £150,000 in damages to Galloway and a reputed £2 million in costs. A talented journalist had been given a kicking. In the House of Commons, Galloway called David Blair a liar, under privilege, and was criticised by the Standards and Privileges Committee for doing so. He doesn’t take prisoners and he wants everyone to know that he doesn’t.

The roots of his aggressive tactics to journalists can be traced back to the first time he stood for election. In the local Dundee council ballot of 1977, the young firebrand Galloway stood in a ward with a comfortable majority of 800, but lost it to a little old lady called Bunty Turley, who campaigned against him for being part of “a Marxist group”. It became a double PR disaster when the newspapers bristled with prim-faced outrage after local priest Basil O’Sullivan denounced him from the pulpit one Sunday for “living in sin” with his girlfriend (later his wife) Elaine Fyffe. The papers quoted O’Sullivan’s ludicrous expression that Galloway and Elaine were “lying down like the beasts of the field”. It might have been a line from a 1950s Ealing comedy, except no one was laughing.

Fed-up with his treatment by the newspapers, in 1979 Galloway and the Dundee Labour Party tried to redress the balance locally by starting their own. The Dundee Standard lasted about 10 months, but as it fell apart financially, Bill Walker, the Tory MP for nearby Perth and East Perthshire, complained: “I just cannot see how the Labour Party in Dundee can claim to represent the working people and the trade unions when they pay below the NUJ rates and employ non-union labour.” Galloway’s argument was that it was not possible to run a small paper any other way, but it was another PR faux pas.

Since some early mistakes, Galloway has skilfully constructed an image that works for him: that of the champion of real Labour values, the voice of the working family and the defender of persecuted minorities. He takes on the Establishment and the colonial world order, in high profile court cases, on the stump, with rabble-rousing speeches. So, there is often a very good reason why we follow Galloway’s exploits. He is meat and drink for news desks, but the danger is that you only cover the row and don’t get to grips with the substantial issues, or even dig a little deeper into his motives, beliefs or modus operandi. It’s the superficial reporting of Galloway that has paid him dividends. While he was the boss of the poverty charity War On Want, for example, it was much easier for reporters to cover his sexual antics at a conference in Greece than the details of his expenses claims.

He ruined Oona King’s political career: who next?

He thrives in the heat of a media battle and has spent his career fighting others on the left of British politics as much as on the right: he was expelled from the Labour Party by Tony Blair; his colleagues in Glasgow Hillhead passed a vote of no confidence in him when he was their Labour MP; he became caught up in an acrimonious row over the running of several Labour social clubs when they went bust in Dundee; little old Bunty Turley had been a Labour councillor, though she fought Galloway as an independent; the mild-mannered socialists of War On Want were still traumatised when I spoke to them 20 years after the whirlwind that is Galloway had swept through. He has left many bobbing and spinning in his wake.

These fights all make great copy, but the noisier the commotion, often the more superficial the coverage. In 2005, as a leading member of the Respect party, he fought a bitter campaign against Labour’s Oona King in Bethnal Green. Heated meetings with angry supporters, in this case whipped up by Oona’s support for the invasion of Iraq, made for a macabre circus, and Galloway ran out the winner by just 823 votes, vowing to hound Tony Blair out of office. It was an empty promise from a master of mockery, a granddaddy of the grandiloquent, a shaman of shallow. And now another election has put him back in the headlines and given him a chance to hit out at Labour’s feeble policy on Palestine. It will do little for Rochdale, and less for the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

My late mother was born and raised in Rochdale and her Lancastrian nose for bullshit and talent for plain speaking would have sent Galloway packing from her doorstep. He has crashed into town, and quite legitimately helped people express their shock and horror at the killing of tens of thousands of Muslims, but can he really make Keir Starmer “pay a high

price for the role you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Gaza”? If history is any indication, his Workers Party of Britain is more likely to be a flash in the by-election pan. The Galloway circus will move on.

So why Galloway? Are you kidding me? How am I the only one to write a biography? Charting his progress up the treacherous slopes of Scottish, then UK, politics was fascinating. Back in 2007, I wondered had he ascended as far he was able? Would Big Brother tip him from the mountain top? Clearly not, and as Boris Johnson proved, popular TV can help a political career. Nigel Farage hopes to prove that too. Galloway was a trailblazer in that respect, but anyone who has scaled a mountain knows there are false summits, dangerous changes in conditions, and great potential for taking the wrong path. When the mist clears, you might even find yourself on the top of the wrong mountain. Perhaps a smaller one, that is far less significant than the big ones everyone else has climbed.

David Morley

David Morley is a writer and radio producer. His play, Elon Musk: Lost in Space, opens in London in October.

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