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.

Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.

Bevin, the working-class John Bull who stood up to Stalin and has no successors in today’s Labour Party

11 Jul

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.

From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.

This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.

Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.

In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:

“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”

Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:

“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”

One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.

Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.

He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.

Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.

He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.

This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.

Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:

“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.

If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.

Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.

Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.

In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,

“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”

Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.

In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.

In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.

There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:

“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”

Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.

This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.

In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.

It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.

Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.

And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.

Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”

This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.

There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.

But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.

This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.

Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.

The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,

“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”