Profile: George Galloway, who “is going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory”

4 Mar

Welcome aboard, George. The Conservatives have gained a new and at first sight unlikely supporter in the Holyrood elections.

George Galloway is a ferocious orator, who rejoiced Unionist hearts during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign by carrying the fight to the Nationalists with a brio unmatched by any other speaker.

He has now announced, in the course of his talk show on Russia Today (at 59 minutes and 30 seconds on this recording), in answer to a call from David in Glasgow:

“Here’s a declaration, David, you never expected to hear from me. I’ll be voting Conservative in the elections in May, on my constituency vote, for the first time in my life, because my local MSP is a Conservative and the challenger to him is the SNP.

So my view is that everyone should vote for the best placed candidate standing against the SNP. Because this is a one-off election. It’s a referendum on a referendum. It’s an attempt to stop the neverendum. It’s an attempt to get Scotland off the hamster wheel of endless constitutional peregrinations.

It’s an attempt to get the country back from the brink. And therefore it qualifies as an existential threat not just to Scotland but to Britain as a whole.

So frankly, I’d vote for Beelzebub himself [David starts to chuckle] rather than the SNP, and I’m going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory.”

Galloway, a left-wing socialist, is in normal times a sworn enemy of the Tories, and has also shown a marked ability to fall out with people on his own side.

A Tory who has often crossed swords with Galloway in the past, and takes a low view of him, responded with Churchill’s remark:

“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

For just as the EU referendum of 2016 trumped existing party loyalties and forced people into strange alliances, so the future of the Union with Scotland is a great constitutional question which stirs such deep feelings that it cuts through everything else.

For Galloway, the crisis is also an opportunity. Last summer, he set up Alliance4Unity, which is now seeking to maximise the number of anti-Nationalist MSPs by urging Scots to  cast their first, constituency, vote, for whichever Unionist candidate – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat – has the best chance of beating the SNP in that particular seat, and then cast their second vote for Alliance4Unity, which will field an eclectic list of candidates, united only in their determination to oppose independence.

Even some readers of ConservativeHome might be hard pressed to explain, in a few sentences, the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, combining as it does, by use of the d’Hondt method, first-past-the-post voting in individual constituencies with a second, top-up vote for each party’s regional list, making the final result more proportional.

So here is a fact sheet produced by the Scottish Parliament which renders the whole thing crystal clear, and which states that an independent candidate needs to get between six and seven per cent of the regional, top-up vote to gain election.

Margo MacDonald secured election by this route after falling out with the SNP, and Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003, evidently hopes he can repeat her success.

His chances are at this stage unpredictable. We do not know what will happen in Scotland, and Galloway’s own career is rich in electoral triumph and disaster. Sometimes he unexpectedly comes out on top, as in the acrimonious Bradford West by-election of March 2012, where he stood as the Respect candidate and courted the Muslim vote, after which Andy McSmith observed, in a profile of Galloway for The Independent:

“When he announced that he was running in Bradford West, it appeared to be a desperate attempt by a half-forgotten man to draw attention to himself. Almost the only people to spot what was actually happening were punters who bet so heavily on a Galloway victory that the bookies are saying the result is costing them £100,000. George Galloway is back on the scene.”

Sometimes he fails just as definitively, as in the 2019 general election, when he came sixth in West Bromwich East with 489 votes.

In the nine weeks between now and polling day, the pandemic may prevent him from playing his natural game, which would be to hold a series of public meetings at which he would draw in the crowds by giving brilliantly entertaining speeches.

Here he is speaking during the 2014 referendum campaign:

“I have been divorced more than once. Trust me it is never ever amicable, whatever anybody tells you. But you can make a deal. You can give the partner who is walking out on you all the CDs the DVDs, the dog, the car – you can give them everything, but the one thing you will never ever give them is the right to continue to use the joint credit card.

And that is what their plan A – and they have no plan B – amounts to.

They want to use a currency issued by the Bank of England – the clue being in the name; they want to continue to use it and they imagine that the people that issue it will allow them to do so; to use the joint credit card, even though and as they are walking out the door.

So this is the first time ever that people in a small country, where everyone speaks the same language, are being asked to break up and break up on the basis that they don’t have a currency to use.

There will be no pound. Trust me on that. I came yesterday from Parliament (where) the leaders of the mainstream parties have not changed their minds. An independent Scotland will not have the pound.

What will it have instead? The euro – how’s that going? Anybody fancy that or are we going to bring back the groat?

I see one or two pensioners here, or people close to pensionable age. How do you fancy your pension in groats? How do you fancy a pension that is based entirely on the absolutely unstable price of a commodity that will be finished in 2050?

And in my lifetime oil has been as low as $9 a barrel and as high as $156 a barrel. Who wants to mortgage their children and their children’s future on a finite resource that will soon be finished and the price of which is simply un-calculable? Un-calculable.”

This kind of rhetoric reaches voters, and indeed non-voters, who are repelled by the platitudes of the professional political careerists.

Galloway will be dismissed, by prosy commentators – and especially by prosy commentators of Nationalist sympathies – as a disreputable loner, an egotist, an opportunist and troublemaker who must be kept out of the mainstream media and left to address a few cranks on stations like Russia Today to which no decent person listens.

But he has a lot of followers on social media, and he may have spotted a gap in the market. Just as there are some socialists who want a more socialist Labour Party, so there are some Unionists who want a more uncompromising unionism, articulated by an insurrectionist who take on the whole Holyrood Establishment, a Dundonian boot boy who can reach the Scottish working class and treats politics as a blood sport.

In the 2010 general election, I toured the East End of London with Galloway:

“As we approached the headquarters of Respect, the party he created when he fell out with Labour, we warned ourselves not to be seduced by the oratory of the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who is this time standing in the adjacent east London seat of Limehouse and Poplar.

But gleaming in the sun outside his office stood a beautiful, red, open-topped Routemaster bus. Like Boris Johnson, Mr Galloway knows that few things raise the spirits so much as the chance to go for a ride on the top deck of the finest bus ever to lumber through the streets of London…

Mr Galloway arrived. He wore a natty pin-striped suit and was smoking a cigar. According to Mr Galloway, he has been wearing suits since the age of 15. We asked where this one came from and he said it was from a shop called Retro.

So we were in the presence of a Retro politician: a man able to make an unscrupulous appeal to our preference for old-fashioned clothes and old-fashioned language.

To see whether Mr Galloway could also manage old-fashioned niceness, we put it to him that Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP whom he is hoping to defeat, is “a decent fellow”.

‘Yes,’ Mr Galloway replied, ‘apart from the fact that he voted for a war that killed a million people. It kind of invalidates any other qualities.’ Mr Galloway went on: ‘I want to punish the people who voted for the war, one by one if necessary.'”

The vindictive Galloway only managed to come third in Limehouse and Poplar, but the point stands that this old-style orator and strict teetotaller in his natty suits is more of a small-c conservative than his critics are willing to admit.

They denounce him for making common cause with Muslims who have old-fashioned views about, for example, the role of women, without pausing to consider that many Christians until recently held much the same views about women, and that Galloway, born in 1954 in Dundee into a working-class Roman Catholic household, may have learned in his youth to regard such views as normal.

He showed precocious ability as a Labour campaigner, also developed an early and unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause, arranged for Dundee to be twinned with Nablus in the West Bank, affronted some Dundonians by hoisting the Palestinian flag above the Council Chambers, and at the age of 26 became the youngest ever Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party.

In 1987, Galloway regained Glasgow Hillhead for Labour, defeating Roy Jenkins, one of the founders of the SDP. Galloway had already demonstrated a gift for stirring up controversy, and for discomforting his opponents, while running the charity War on Want, and he proceeded to become an unruly MP.

He was attacked for telling Saddam Hussein, at a meeting in 1994:  “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Galloway was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003 for going too far in his opposition to the Iraq War – he had suggested British troops “refuse to obey illegal orders”.

But he remained in the House as an Independent MP until 2005, when he captured Bethnal Green and Bow for his new party, Respect, after a rough battle for Muslim votes with the Labour candidate, Oona King.

Galloway is a provocateur who often so infuriates his opponents that they overstate the case against him, whereupon he turns the tables on them. In 2005 he went to Washington and denounced some American senators who had supposed he was a discredited figure who would would defer to them.

He also demonstrated his gifts as a controversialist by debating in New York against Christopher Hitchens, whom he had attacked as “a drink soaked former Trotskyist popinjay”. The recording of this affair serves as a good example of each man’s style.

Frank Johnson, doyen of Westminster sketchwriters, recognised Galloway as “a tremendous parliamentarian”. Journalists who value entertainment, and the upsetting of apple carts, above the steadier virtues, will be yearning for Galloway to gain election to the Scottish Parliament.

Alliance4Unity has recruited a number of other candidates, including Jamie Blackett, a farmer, writer and former soldier, who accepted the post of Deputy Leader, and Alan Sked, founder of UKIP.

Galloway has his vehicle. By the end of the first week in May we shall know whether it has taken him and some of his companions to Holyrood.

Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

Securing the Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

2 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the third. Eight months on, how are they doing?

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Securing The Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

Boris Johnson did not become Prime Minister to fight for the United Kingdom, any more than did Theresa May to deliver Brexit.

Nonetheless he, like his predecessor, knows that his legacy will be defined by a battle not of his preference.

The precedent set by the Government’s handling of Northern Ireland is not inspiring, with MPs reportedly not realising the real implications of the terms they agreed to escape the impasse over the Backstop. However, the steel ministers are showing over control of post-Brexit economic powers suggests that they are finally getting across the need to defend the structures of the Union.

Officially, the Government insists that it will not grant a second “once-in-a-generation” referendum. It would be quite right to do this, although the arguments for doing so will need fleshing out.

Yet holding that line in the face of a separatist majority at next year’s Holyrood elections may require more nerve than the forces of unionism possess at the minute, and there are signs that preparations are being laid for a future campaign.

As suggested in Paul’s original article, Michael Gove is playing a leading role in the pro-UK operation inside the Government, although much of his time is reportedly consumed with Brexit at present.

He has even been out on manoeuvres with George Galloway, who has returned to Scotland and launched a new political party, the Alliance for Unity, to contest the upcoming Scottish Parliament election.

Whilst there is no sign yet of a full-blown Department of the Union, Johnson has brought in Luke Graham, the former Tory MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, to head up the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’ – although the sacking of the Unit’s adviser in February caused concern amongst Scottish Conservatives.

The Prime Minister has also blocked a proposal from Gove to invite Nicola Sturgeon to sit in Cabinet (which seems fair, as she would not be bound by collective responsibility and has no mandate on reserved matters) and ordered that projects funded by the Government in Scotland should bear the imprint of the Union.

Outwith the Government, meanwhile, work is underway to rebuild the pro-UK campaigning machine. Whether or not this network can work harmoniously with the Number Ten operation remains to be seen.