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Did Galloway win in Washington?

19 May 2005

A note on the brouhaha over the theatrical US Senate appearance of British MP “Gorgeous” George Galloway.

Three days before Britain’s General Election, I followed Galloway and his supporters around his East London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. GG won the seat, overturning the seemingly comfortable 10,000 vote majority of the high-profile former Labour MP Oona King. Read my report of this messy contest here.

Galloway flew to Washington at his own expense (he can well afford to travel First Class) promising to offload “both barrels” to the Senate committee who were accusing him of receiving generous payments from Saddam Hussein’s regime through dodgy oil deals. crooksandliars has the show, watch it here – it’s well worth it.

The barnstorming performance from Galloway has provoked a ton of comment on the stylistic and democratic difference between the British and American political arenas. The general verdict is that Galloway (and Britain) won easily on points.

“Brit fries senators in oil,” blasted the New York Post. “How did one maverick MP manage to outgun a committee of senior US politicians so successfully?” asked Britain’s Independent. The Times of London described “one of the most extraordinary political confrontations” as “a clash of institutions … the brawling methods of British politics suddenly sprawling across the decorous political stage.”

Writing in today’s Independent, US correspondent Rupert Cornwell takes this idea further, describing “the mother of all culture gaps between the parliamentary traditions of Britain and America.” “[Brits] tend to see politics as a public bloodsport,” Cornwell reckons, “with the exception of Bill Clinton – every recent American president would have been slaughtered weekly if he had to face Prime Minister’s Questions.” Norm Coleman, the Republican Senator who took Galloway on, is judged as having been “way out of his depth … proceedings only served to underline the average senator or congressman’s ignorance of the world beyond America, be it the underlying realities of the Middle East, or the polemical ways of British public life.”

Galloway spun the same line, saying afterwards on CNN, that “British parliamentary tradition won.” But which tradition is that? And what do we all mean when we say he and his tradition “won”?

Two things. First, Galloway is not so much a part of Britain’s democratic tradition as a highly controversial fringe-member. Whatever one thinks of his politics (and let’s not go there) Galloway’s record as an MP is atrocious. He may be a great orator, but he attended a total of 1% of votes as an MP in Britain’s Parliament.

Second, as he waxed lyrical about American lies and war crimes, Galloway answered none of the questions (instapundit has the verdict of the Scotsman on this). This is also a common aspect of the tradition of British parliamentary rhetoric. Yes, the Senators sounded plodding next to Galloway’s invective, and they should never have given the man such an elevated platform from which to bellow, but this is why Senate committees tend to get to the bottom of things. Britain’s Parliament definitely produces better spectator-sport (“the best show in town” etc.) but the emptiness of Galloway’s oratory doesn’t wash in the US Senate. This won’t end here. Meanwhile, as an aside, Galloway needs these grandstands. Without them, he can’t function.

Perhaps to really understand British political tradition it’s best to look at the spat between Galloway and Christopher Hitchens. Hitch asked “Gorgeous” George if he had any evidence that he’d begged the Senate committee to let him present his case before its (guilty) verdict. GG responded with this: “You are a drink-soaked, former Trotskyist popinjay. Your hands are shaking; you badly need another drink.”

In today’s Independent, Hitch describes how Galloway “hosed me with vulgar abuse”. He then goes on to describe Galloway as “a thug and a demagogue, the type of working-class-wide-boy-and-proud-of-it who is too used to the expenses account, the cars and the hotels – all cigars and back-slapping. He is a very cheap character and a short-arse like a lot of them are, puffed up like a turkey.”

Those US Senators must be green with envy.

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