Profile: Nobody's hero but his own: Brash Stalinist or frustrated people's champion? Cal McCrystal on Labour's loose cannon: George Galloway

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The Independent Online
GEORGE GALLOWAY joined the Dundee Labour Party at 13, pretending he was 15, the minimum age for membership. This suggests either a weakness for short-cuts or a great resolve. But it may also suggest an instinct for economising with truth.

In the 26 years since then, he has overstepped marks, got up noses, spoken impulsively and intemperately, lived and loved dangerously, turned up in some very odd places, but has always managed to counter charges that he was a downright liar. When, in 1992, he went to court against newspaper allegations that he had lied and abused parliamentary privilege, he won pounds 150,000 in libel damages.

Last week, however, the Scottish Labour MP's effusions in Iraq and subsequent elaboration of them in London appear to have left his integrity in tatters. 'Gorgeous George', as he has enjoyed being called, may have sealed his political fate. Following a ferocious wigging from party whips, 'Greying-fast-George' (as he ruefully described himself afterwards) boarded a train for Scotland. He was going to 'quieten wild waters', he said. In reality, it is a bid to talk his way out of oblivion. Boundary changes, which reduce Glasgow's constituencies from 11 to 10 for the next general election, may result in the controversial Mr Galloway being dumped.

To avoid this, he must persuade the voters and selectors of Glasgow's Hillhead constituency that his salutation to Saddam Hussein ('Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability and I want you to know we are with you') was really an attack on Saddam's 'bestial regime' - an uphill task, not much reduced by his assurance that he was directing his remarks to the Iraqi people. He must also convince the Labour Party that he is 'genuinely upset to have angered John Smith' the Opposition leader whom Galloway says 'I regard as a friend'.

The disgraced MP and some of his surviving friends think he can pull it off. Bill Spears, of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, a chum since childhood, acknowledges Galloway's faith in himself. 'He has always wanted to be foreign secretary.' A journalist who went to school with the MP recalls an aggressive teenager, 'massively egotistical', fond of declaring, 'Boldness be thy friend]' On Friday, Galloway, a Dundee Scot with Irish ancestors, sped northwards after quoting for me the late Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid on the Irish rebel James Connolly: 'Scots steel tempered wi' Irish fire/ Is the weapon that I desire.'

Galloway is a MacDiarmid enthusiast. He is even more enraptured by Connolly who lived for some years in St Mary's Lane, Dundee - 'the same street where my family lived. Connolly worked in the Dundee jute factories before going off to Dublin, where he was executed (for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising)'.

These recollections suggest that, whatever else Mr Galloway wants you to believe about him, he is determined that you should know he is a rebel. Condemning the British for executing the wounded Connolly tied to a chair, he describes himself as an 'emotional' man, 'perhaps unduly idealistic', who follows 'the dictates of my conscience'. His conscience, he implies, has had other moulding influences: Jack London, whose 1907 novel The Iron Heel he devoured as a boy; Robert Tressell (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists); Keir Hardie, the Scottish socialist, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Arafat, it may be argued, is the source of Galloway's sorrows.

In 1974, George Galloway, then 20, met a young Palestinian, Sahad Jabaji, a student at Dundee University. 'He has since disappeared from my life, but he convinced me of this huge injustice that had been done to his people.' Galloway immediately took up the cause - 'not an easy thing to have done,' he now says, 'just after the Munich Olympic Games massacre' (of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists).

Three years later, Galloway accompanied a group of young leftwingers, some of them Communists, to Beirut, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and receiving briefings from the PLO. Within a further three years, he managed to 'twin' Dundee with Nablus, the Palestinian town on the Israeli- occupied West Bank. His efforts caused the PLO flag to be flown on Dundee town hall and both the Dundee and Scottish flags to be hoisted in Nablus. He met Arafat several times, most recently in Ireland when the PLO leader was welcomed in Dublin last month, but their regard for one another lacks mutual intensity. Whereas Galloway describes Arafat as 'heart-warming', the Palestinian (according to a Galloway acquaintance) has been known to mutter, 'Not him again]' when told that the MP sought his company.

Nevertheless, the PLO is appreciative. Basem Baz, its London information officer, says: 'We wish him luck, and hope he doesn't suffer for speaking for the dispossessed.' Having observed Galloway among Palestinian children in East Jerusalem, Mr Baz thinks him a 'very passionate, though humble person', an assessment that would surprise many in Dundee.

BORN IN 1954 to George and Elaine Galloway, their son later was to say: 'I was born in an attic . . . in a slum tenement . . . in the Irish quarter of Dundee which is known as Tipperary.' But a school friend insists: 'That's nonsense. His parents were both working, the family was fairly comfortably off. George's father was an engineering worker who became a teacher after taking a degree as a mature student.' The MP lists the Michelin tyre factory among his former jobs. 'More nonsense,' says the former friend. 'He was in the tyre factory for seven weeks during his college holidays.'

He attended Dundee's Harris Academy, one of the best grammar schools in Scotland, where he sometimes showed reckless tendencies. Once, on the school poolside, a gym master had the idea that young Galloway was in difficulties. When he bent down to extend a helping hand, the 'drowning man' jerked him into the water, fully clothed.

The drowning man illusion has surfaced from time to time, as the man who became chairman of the Scottish Labour Party at 26, entered deeper waters: in 1981, when Denis Healey tried to have him removed from Labour's candidates' list (for writing a pro-Communist magazine article); in 1982, when Michael Foot rebuked him for urging the admission of Communists to the party; in 1984, for opposing the expulsion of Militant supporters from the party; in 1986, over allegations (which he denied) that, as director of the charity War on Want, he indulged in an unnecessarily lavish lifestyle; in 1987, when the Daily Mirror disclosed he shared a secret 'love nest' with a woman named Lilian, while married to a woman named Elaine.

Unburdened by self-doubt, he has remained buoyant. When he beat Roy (now Lord) Jenkins to the Hillhead seat in 1987 - after being cleared of allegations of misuse of War on Want funds - he confounded those who thought the 'brash Stalinist' would never get on with his constituents, many of them middle class. On trips to Cuba to hob-nob with Castro, Galloway's language is aggressively Cold War (Castro's eyes 'twinkle'; American eyes are 'baleful'). Yet you will not find the spartan Marxist in him. Dapper in dress, he is often wreathed in the smoke of expensive Havanas or behind the wheel of his red Mercedes sports car. His popularity with Labour MPs is not much greater than with Tories, one of whom once threw a punch at him.

The kindest remark comes from Hugh McMahon, Labour MEP for Strathclyde West: 'George can go over the top when he's opposed.' Bill Spears puts his friend's trouble down to frustration. 'He takes up dangerous - but not daft - causes. He tries to be disciplined but is frustrated at his talents not being used.'

Had it not been for his peculiar greeting to Saddam Hussein, George Galloway's Middle East excursions would have seemed not much more unusual that Sir Edward Heath's Baghdad adventures, or Sir Teddy Taylor's friendly forays into Libya; and no more questionable than, say, some British MPs taking summer homes in northern Cyprus, a territory seized by Turkey in an illegal invasion and unrecognised by the rest of the world. It is hard to doubt his depth of feeling when talking about Iraq's starving millions ('swollen bellies, matchstick legs, caesarean operations without anaesthetics'), or his emotional attachment to the Arab world. ('I've had no time to learn Gaelic. If I had time to learn a language, it would be Arabic').

Because the Labour whips banned him from discussing Iraq with the press, he is unable to address some outstanding puzzles. Why, if he regards the Saddam Hussein regime as 'bestial', did he offer obeisance to the beast? Why, knowing how sensitive his Middle Eastern mission was, did he not think to consult his leader in advance of it? It is likely these questions were put to him at his local party meeting in Glasgow on Friday night. But it is hard to see how the MP can produce answers that will save his bacon.

Mr Galloway is not one to give up without having somewhere else - or someone else - to turn to. Estranged from his wife (they have a daughter), he says he is now in a 'stable relationship' with a Palestinian woman, and also in 'a very close relationship with a circle of like minds'. But he partly agrees with Bill Spear's assessment of him. 'Yes, I suppose I am a bit frustrated. But not disenchanted. I'm a little depressed on being grounded as a result of this row.' He cannot quite hide his awareness of his vulnerability. 'I will appeal to my constituency people for their support,' he says. 'But I would be lying if I said I didn't have enemies.'

(Photograph omitted)

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