A journey into the world of George Galloway: the indyref and the limits of left populism

At a public meeting in Portobello, a grumpy George Galloway couldn't get his basic facts right...

Gerry Hassan
28 August 2014

George Galloway. David Hunt/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Many ridiculous things have been said in the independence referendum.

There was Alex Salmond’s questioning of Alistair Darling in the first debate on the possibilities of ‘aliens’; Jenny Hjul in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ on ‘the enemy’ next door and then trying to pass it off as humour; and only last week Polly Toynbee in ‘The Guardian’ referenced Alex Salmond and Robert Bruce, then wrote, ‘That’s what fighters the world over say’, listing a host of warzones from Gaza to Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, and then publicly denied making any connection.

Yet the prize for the most consistent performer in saying outlandish things in the independence referendum has been, like the Scottish Premiership, no real contest. In an analogy he would undoubtedly approve of, the Celtic FC in this context is the (thankfully) one and only: George Galloway, erstwhile MP for Bradford West.

Last week Galloway took his ‘Just Say Naw’ tour to Portobello Town Hall on a sunlit Wednesday night. In an Edinburgh of many attractions, Galloway attracted an audience of just under 200, nearly all of whom, if the applause and tuts were any guide were convinced No voters, with a couple of undecided, and a sprinkling of half a dozen Yes voters out for an evening’s entertainment.

Galloway of course does not like independence, but for him it is personal and ‘All about Salmond. One person’s ego and ambition.’ It is also about Salmond’s backers, ‘Bigoted, Bible-bashing Brian Soutar’ and ‘Monaco Jim’ (McCall).

Throughout the evening Galloway snarled in incredulity that things had got to this point, asking ‘Why are we even contemplating this division and madness?’ At another moment he observed that, ‘You break-up a small island who speak the same language, the same culture … it is absolute foolishness’.

Galloway believes that none of this makes any economic sense and that Scotland ‘doesn’t make any things now’ - an observation that he failed to note is at least as true of the UK as a whole. He asked what would Scotland do, sailing off with North Sea Oil, when the monies ran out - ‘What will we live on? Shortbread? The market in Andy Stewart records is broken’.

There was the bogey of the Tories. Scotland wanted to ‘get rid of the Tories’, but independence would ‘condemn the rest of the UK to Tory Governments’. A recurring theme of the evening was Galloway’s lack of grasp of facts and detail, so independence involved ‘giving the Tories 49 MPs of a start’ (when Scotland has 59 MPs, one of them a Tory).

Returning to his ‘getting rid of Tories’ mantra of the debate, he revisited the sins of 1979 and who was responsible for Thatcher. ‘Eleven SNP MPs’, he commented, ‘drunkenly voted to bring down Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government’. Then it was a familiar litany of loss, ‘On the night they did that Scotland had a shipbuilding industry, a coal industry, a mining industry, and a car making industry’.

Darker history was to come about with the perfidy and even treachery of the Nationalists as Galloway claimed, ‘When Hitler was standing at the Channel Ports, when the RAF was fighting the Luftwaffe, no one cared if a pilot was from Sutherland or Southwark’.

It got worse, for as Britain stood alone, ‘Leaders of the SNP were interned. They were collaborating with Hitler seeking to open channels with him to let him into this island’. This is inaccurate: the latter comments completely off the radar; the SNP supported the war but many of its members opposed conscription on the principle of ‘not in my name’ due to the absence of any form of Scottish Government – a position which saw SNP leader Douglas Young and future leader Arthur Donaldson go to jail.

This was the low point of the evening. On numerous occasions Galloway revealed that he does have a propensity to think the world revolves around him, and that ‘the powers that be’ conspire to stop him. In one example he stated as incontrovertible fact that ‘I have been out of Scotland for a few years since Tony Blair expelled me from the Labour Party and abolished my constituency’. Glasgow Kelvin was abolished in 2005 by the Boundary Commission; Tony Blair had no input whatsoever.

There were across the evening a plethora of inaccurate comments. For example, on Orkney and Shetland: ‘A lot of the native population consider themselves Scandinavian’ and ‘they didn’t vote for devolution’ (they did in 1997; they didn’t vote for it in 1979).

There was a classic George comment that ‘23% of women support independence’ and so ‘more than three-quarters are not going to support independence’. This would mean that about 70% of men support independence - which shows either that George cannot do basic maths or that he thinks the sexes are completely at odds and at different ends of the political spectrum!

The detail of the campaign also appeared to flummox him, as he invented ‘the Radical Independence Collective’ - combining the Radical Independence Campaign and National Collective – commenting that none of them ‘live in a council house’ and that they are ‘over-educated, rabid Trots’.

There was the revelation that he thought ‘Newsnight Scotland’ was still on air when it stopped broadcasting three months ago, ‘When I watch ‘Newsnight’ and then I have to hear about the goings on of South Lanarkshire council’. At another point he confessed, ‘I don’t have much time to watch Scottish TV’.

He showed several times an indignation about not having a vote, but then connected immigration into this. He claimed that ‘I am the least racist man in the world’ and then went on to say, ‘A Polish man who has just arrived has a vote and I don’t have a vote’. That is getting into a very unattractive politics.

Galloway showed at times his humour, charm and sense of playfulness. Clearly any politician elected in three different cities, Glasgow, London and Bradford, has qualities. Yet, throughout the evening it was evident he was not in a happy mood, and that it was not just Alex Salmond and the spectre of independence that was annoying him.

There was resentment towards ‘Better Together’. ‘I am astounded I am having to work so hard’, he said, ‘doing meetings every day’. But he also seemed tired and less filled with the love of his own rhetoric and political passions. All of the above comments, even the most outlandish claims, were said in a relatively low-key manner.

His demeanour suggested that maybe he has bitten off more than he can chew with a ‘Just Say Naw’ national tour after the excitement and energy of the first dates. He called Portobello Town Hall ‘the worst venue he had ever been to’ and when the microphone started acting up in the question and answer section, he shouted (with some wit) ‘sabotage’, but then went on, ‘There is no water in the green room. No water on the table. I want my money back’.

All of this raises the questions: why is George Galloway doing this? To save the union? Seriously? To counter the left rhetoric and passion on the independence side? Which Scotland does he really think he is addressing?

He is selling a few books. Copies of ‘The Quotable Galloway: From Alcohol to Zionism’ were available in the hall. The title is taken from the esteemed Christopher Hitchens’s collection, who Galloway had on occasion sparred with. One is filled with wit and sharp observation; the other mixes up Danny and Douglas Alexander. On parting with my £9.99 I was offered the opportunity to get my copy signed; I quietly declined.

As the meeting concluded the mood was understated. The audience did not get worked up and embrace Galloway’s vision with adulation, but softly agreed with him that the SNP and independence was a false prospectus preventing us from getting on with the issues that matter: bashing Tories and going on about class. Strangely, that other great cause of George’s life, the Palestinian issue, made not one appearance over the whole evening. He had been cautioned by police over anti-Semitism the previous day.

As Galloway drew proceedings to a close he stated that ‘we don’t need to keep going’ and that he ‘would quite like to watch the second half of the Celtic match’. We paused and the audience and Galloway went their separate ways. Standing in Portobello High Street, some of us tried to make sense of what we had just witnessed: an encounter with the strange world of George Galloway.

There is something fascinating underway in this referendum. There is in parts of Scotland an appetite for quasi-religious, evangelical oratory and politics. Scotland does not have any church leaders or men and women of traditional faith who are preachers, so it has made do with the next best thing. It has found in Galloway on the No side, and Jim Sillars and Tommy Sheridan on Yes - a politics which draws from the memory of yesteryear, the allure of certainty, and, the attraction of faith rather than fact.

Galloway didn’t say it in Portobello but he has threatened in an independent Scotland to come back to take on Alex Salmond. That surely is his trump card. ‘Vote No or you get me traipsing round the country assailing the citizenry’. It is perhaps the ‘Better Together’ nuclear option. The result would surely be a landslide.

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