George Galloway: Because you're Gorgeous!
The maverick MP knows how to get attention. This time, however, he is doing it by leading a mile-long convoy of aid trucks all the way from London to Gaza. Cole Moreton meets... George Galloway
Sunday 15 February 2009
Gorgeous George just cannot help himself. Describing the huge convoy he is leading to Gaza, packed with food, clothes and medical supplies, he begins with a proud recital of the statistics: "One hundred vehicles. A mile long. Aid worth a million pounds." If he smiles like a cat that's got the cream, who can argue? The help is needed. The vehicles – trucks, cars, ambulances, fire engines, even a boat for the fishermen – that left London yesterday at the start of a three-week overland journey have been donated and are crewed by volunteers, in a spontaneous gesture he claims to have inspired but not to control. But this is George Galloway. You'll find him at the head of the column, where the cameras can see him. Driving a Mercedes 4x4.
This being George, he has a Winnebago motorhome in which to sleep while everyone else has to kip down in tents or in their cabs. "I am 54 years of age," he says with a look that dares a challenge. "I do have to appear on television when we stop." He will actually fly back to London for three days a week, to host radio shows and his surgery as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, while the others press on.
This being George, there has to be hyperbole. "This is a vast armada, the biggest convoy of British vehicles to cross North Africa since Montgomery and the Eighth Army." His grandfather Tommy was there. "I grew up with his lovely black-and-white pictures of the desert." And, being George, he cannot help himself from turning up the heat. Most of those who are going with him are British Muslims. "If I had said to the youth, 'Right, break out the Kalashnikovs, we're heading for Palestine,' they would have been there. The people are boiling mad."
Galloway raised the most support for his idea in "the big industrial cities of the North" – speaking to a thousand people in a warehouse in Bolton, for example. "There is such anger at Britain's role. All the public money the Government has spent on checking the radicalisation of Muslim youth has gone up in smoke [since Israel began its attacks]. The idea that Muslims are going to watch that on the television every night and not be radicalised is completely fanciful."
He goes further. "There is a kind of intifada among the youth. They are determined to act." Inflammatory stuff – except that Galloway, who has courted this audience to great effect since alienating himself from mainstream party politics, insists he is offering the angry another way. "We say, 'Don't be lured by the siren voices of separatism and extremism – join with us and express your anger politically, in a way that will be peaceful, non-violent, and not cost you your life, but will not cost other people their lives either. If the Government had any sense, they would be facilitating this convoy."
It's not, of course. The rich accent is that of a Scotsman like Gordon Brown, but fraternal feelings go no further. Galloway was born in Dundee in 1954, and joined the Labour Party just 13 years later. He represented Glasgow seats as an MP from 1987 to 2005, by which time he had been expelled from the party for bringing it into disrepute – essentially, because he dared to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Later, accused of profiting personally from the UN Oil-for-Food programme, he was summoned to appear before a US Senate committee. That was when the rest of the world discovered the cigar-chomping, finger-waving magnificence of the orator in full flow. See it on YouTube today.
Yes, he had met Saddam, he said, exactly the same number of times as the US Secretary of Defense. "The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns." Afterwards, Galloway stood victorious on Capitol Hill, having won new fans – even among the previously reluctant – by sticking it to the senators.
At his office in Portcullis House there are pictures of Palestine and an action doll of Fidel Castro. George – nicknamed Gorgeous because of his dress sense – is in a black suit with a thick pinstripe and a black shirt. His silver beard is closely cropped. We meet two days before the departure of the convoy. Is this really the best way to get aid there? No. "It's definitely not the most efficient way," he admits. "But it is the only way for ordinary citizens to do it."
Anywhere else, there would be a Berlin-style airlift, he says. "Almost every window has been broken but Israel refuses to allow glass across the border. So, in the bitter winter, 61,000 families whose homes have been destroyed are living among the rubble and the rest are freezing because they've got no windows. You could solve that problem in a weekend, but because it is the Palestinians it doesn't happen."
The volunteers are taking their own aid. "What we asked people to bring was bedclothes, clothes, nappies, food and medical equipment." Does he really expect to be allowed in? "I do, actually. My prediction is that by the time we arrive in Gaza there will be a 12-month ceasefire." If not, they will wait there until let in.
All this makes you wonder what his constituents get out of the MP, the only one from a party that shares top billing on ballot papers, as Respect (George Galloway). It sounds unlikely but he insists he wakes up in the constituency every day, goes to his office there, then to the Commons, then drives up north to speak at meetings if necessary, then drives back. "Nobody in this country has done the miles, over the hours, that I have."
That can't be good for your love life. Galloway was married for 20 years, and has a daughter by his first wife, Elaine. He married the biologist Amineh Abu-Zayyad in 2000, but last month they were divorced. Two years ago he had a son with his former researcher, Rima Husseini. "Yeah," he says, "it's hard to have a peaceful and harmonious private life in those circumstances. The most I'll say is that it has not been particularly harmonious."
If Galloway is "the most in-demand public speaker in the country", we all know why. Meeow. Whatever he does now, he will never escape his extraordinary performance on Celebrity Big Brother two years ago, dancing in a leotard and pretending to be a cat, licking milk from the palm of Rula Lenska. Emerging from the house to boos, he said: "Oh dear."
"There were three reasons for doing it," he says. "One was to raise a substantial amount of money for the refugees in Gaza. Then to use my fee to employ extra staff in my constituency office, which I have done. And to reach a wider audience in Britain with the approach we take to things." What, the feline approach? "Whatever you think, all three goals were achieved. People in motorway service stations who wouldn't know any other politician know me."
They know what he looks like in skin-tight red Lycra. It's not a sight that is easily forgotten. He looked a total fool. But he really doesn't like being told this. His drawl becomes the urgent, irritated voice of the debater. "Everyone looks a fool when they have to dress up." Had he the claws and not just the manner of Shere Khan, they would come out. "But anyway, whatever you think, I did it. I know what was achieved by it. One can never calibrate what was lost by it." So it did do harm? "I agree with you there are people – a substantial number of people, no doubt – who so disapproved of Big Brother that it alienated them from our political approach. The balance in my opinion is positive." Really? "I wouldn't do it again, mind."
No. After Big Brother, everything he does will be seen as attention seeking, surely? "Among a certain class of people. Not to the thousands who come to my public meetings. Or the hundreds of thousands who listen to my radio show. That's my audience. Can I say this without being rude? I kind of don't care what the Independent on Sunday reader who thinks like that thinks of me."
Charming. "This is why I was reluctant to see you. Far from courting this interview, my inclination was not to do it. I gave up long ago caring about these kind of cynical attitudes. I do what I think is right and people will judge me on that." They certainly will. "Somebody once shouted at Harold Wilson, 'You're only looking for votes.' He said: 'I'd be a bloody stupid politician that wasn't.' Am I looking for publicity? I'd be a bloody stupid political leader that wasn't."
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