Good news for investors in George Galloway plc: after an anxious few months, the CEO has moved to protect the embattled brand. Attempting to draw a line under last summer’s unwise foray into gender politics – clearly, one has to say, not the company’s area of expertise – the brand is returning to familiar territory with an all-out attack on Israel.
The CEO may not know much about rape but he’s learned, it seems, a trick or two from Iran’s crowd-pleasing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The lesson couldn’t be simpler: when things are going badly, deny Israel’s right to exist. The opportunity presented itself at an Oxford University debate this week when the Respect MP was scheduled to speak in favour of a motion calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. His opponent, a third-year student called Eylon Aslan-Levy, had just begun to speak when Galloway interrupted him.
“Are you an Israeli?” he demanded. When the student confirmed that he was, Galloway responded that he didn’t debate with Israelis. “I’ve been misled, sorry,” he declared and walked out. It was a typical Galloway performance, characterising himself as the victim of what was actually very bad manners on his part. Didn’t he ask in advance who else was taking part? Galloway’s behaviour has caused outrage in some quarters and I have no quarrel with that, even though I’m not a fan of the current Israeli government or its policies. But the important thing to understand about Galloway is that it’s years since he spoke for a broad range of people on the left.
Journalists tend to have a soft spot for him – he provides good copy, if nothing else – but he was thrown out of the Labour Party a long time ago, and he’s alienated those of us who opposed the Iraq war but still believe the last Labour government did some good things.
Even so, Galloway’s brand of populism found admirers who managed to stomach his long-ago interview with Saddam Hussein and his more recent defence of the Holocaust- denying Ahmadinejad: “The truth is Ahmadinejad is not an extremist. There are people in Iran who think he is far too moderate, far too centrist.” Galloway has denied that Iran executes gay men just for being gay, causing fury among gay activists, but until recently his rows tended to be one-offs and with specific interest groups.
The difference in the past few months is that Galloway has now taken on half the human race. It may be that his stunning by-election victory in March last year blunted his political antennae, but it wasn’t the smartest move, in the midst of a lively revival of feminism, to express downright idiotic and offensive views on rape. The MP’s recent pronouncements have led significant numbers of people to regard him as a preening buffoon with rebarbative attitudes towards gender. Much-married George has a problem with women, in other words, and that’s where we need to look when thinking about the origins of this latest brouhaha.
Connoisseurs of bad theatre might wish to re-run the video podcast from last August in which the MP, shirtsleeves rolled up and thumping the table like a revivalist preacher, denounces the women who’ve accused Julian Assange of sexual assault and rape. With a curious oval disc moving behind his head (it looks like a poorly attached halo but is more likely part of a chair), Galloway lays down the law: “Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100 per cent true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don’t constitute rape, at least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it. And somebody has to say this.”
It’s vintage Galloway, positioning himself as the iconoclast who’s prepared to say aloud what everyone else is only thinking. But on this occasion, many of us were actually thinking that the MP had himself failed to understand the law – or, to put it succinctly, “what a prat”.
His claim in the same podcast that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion” was guaranteed to offend half the population, many of whom said so on Twitter, and it didn’t endear him to female members of his own party. Respect’s leader, Salma Yaqoob, condemned his views on rape and resigned her post a month later. Bradford’s first Muslim lord mayor, the Labour councillor Naveeda Ikram, said that women were “outraged” and pointed out that “Muslim women, in particular, played a large role in electing Mr Galloway for Bradford West”.
It was a pretty spectacular miscalculation, but not one that came as a surprise to those of us who have followed his career. Galloway has pretty standard Catholic views on abortion, talking about women who “kill their children unborn”, even if they sit rather oddly with his boast about having “carnal knowledge” with more than one woman on a trip to Greece in the 1980s. Nor is it surprising that he’s ended up representing the nearest thing Britain has to a religious party, asking voters during the by-election campaign to think about how they would justify their choice of candidate on Judgement Day.
Such tactics don’t play well in largely secular Britain, but Galloway has an even bigger problem. When she resigned as the party’s leader, Yaqoob said she had always admired Galloway’s “anti-imperialist stances”. But she also said that having to choose between that and standing up for the rights of women was “a false choice”. Many Muslim women don’t like patriarchy, any more than women on the secular left. Rewind to this week: ditch patriarchal attitudes or stage a diversion over Israel? No contest, son, as Galloway himself might say.