TONY BLAIR is in full swing. His mouth is beaming, the teeth huge and alarmingly bright. The guitar judders, the grin – more like a grimace – stretches wider on a face ruddy from the cold. He launches himself at the mike.
"Warrr!... Huurr!..." he screams "...what is it good for! Absolutely ..."
"...nuthin'!" choruses the reply.
"Ah-hahhhn...Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Tony cries back, reaching an improbable high.
Under a bleak December sky, the backing singers swap glances, shivering in their skimpy skirts and cursing silently beneath their breath. I am crouched discretely behind, holding their hems, preventing a Marilyn-moment appearing on camera. Families in a nearby tower block, and passers-by walking below, stop to point and stare.
The former Prime Minister is surrounded by his old college band, Ugly Rumours. A gaggle of supporters (you could hardly call them "groupies"), including extras hired for the video shoot, shouts encouragement between takes. Tony takes his cue, and bounces like a teenager going cold turkey on Ritalin.
Just an hour earlier, before we ascended this rooftop in central London (an attempt to copy The Beatles final gig in 1969), I had seen him rehearse his lines with ferocious concentration. It appears he is putting as much effort into miming Edwin Starr's classic as one of his great political speeches.
Suddenly, a bearded policeman approaches across the cluttered roofspace. Picking carefully between the skylights, he walks with a Dixon of Dock Green swagger.
"Anthony Charles Linton Blair," he rumbles in a Highlands twang, thrusting his face close to Tony. "I am arresting you on the charge of spreading Ugly Rumours which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world..."
Just for a moment, all is silent. A lone cheer carries from the student digs above us. Then as a WPC (who looks decidedly like Mr Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth) snaps a pair of handcuffs on the astonished politician, the copper 'corpses'.
The director glares. The singers crack up in fits of laughter, reaching for cigarettes and shawls. Patrick Alan, the lead singer of The Drifters who has been hired to lay down the track, scowls and stamps his feet.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." says George Galloway, covering his smile with a gloved hand. "Unfortunately, Mr Blair has thrown himself off the building," chuckles the MP for Bethnal Green & Bow. Recovering his composure, he pats Tony on the arm.
"All right son, shall we go again?"
The filming of this spoof single and video for the Stop the War Coalition, in which I appeared as an unexpected extra, was just the latest in a series of stunts to engulf what The Sun newspaper likes to call "the most hated man in Britain". A man I had been trailing, together with his strange collection of Islamists, social reformers, anti-war protesters and hard-left revolutionaries that make up the Respect Unity Coalition, for the past 18 months. It was a journey that began on the mean streets of the East End of London and seemed to be ending atop a roof in a more fashionable part of town.
The last time I walked down Brick Lane, I asked a restaurateur about his local MP; he literally spat his response. “George fucking Galloway?” he said. “George fucking Galloway? Oh my god, don’t talk to me about that man!” When I mentioned this incident to a councillor from Galloway’s party, Respect, he told me, quietly: “George is an issue… but something we can manage.”
How has this happened? Has there been a spectacular reversal in the perception of George Galloway in his heartlands? Things couldn’t have been more different than when I’d first laid eyes on him, barely two years ago. There he was – ‘Gorgeous’ George, this suave Scots MP flanked by followers and adoring Asian elders. Cameras flashed and palms were pressed; he seemed every inch the star. At the time, The Sun were calling him ‘the most hated man in Britain’. But to thousands of young Muslims living in London’s East End, and to many more across the world, he was clearly a saviour.
I spent 18 months shadowing the former Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin. Currently his party, ‘Respect – The Unity Coalition’, to give the organisation its full title, is still tiny. In by-elections last year, Dave Ellis stood in Greenhead, Huddersfield and only polled 3.9 percent of the vote. In Barnsley the party scored 5.5 percent. But it garnered a further dozen council seats in east London as well as gaining a smattering of wards in nearby Newham and one in Birmingham. It was also suggested that it plans on standing candidates in the Scottish Parliament.
I wanted to discover whether ‘Gorgeous’ George was pseudo-celebrity or a revolutionary and champion of the poor. And, perhaps more importantly, if his undeniable charisma and hunger for self-promotion bodes well or not for his supporters.
Galloway is one of the most controversial political figures of our age. He’s known for his love of Cuban cigars, snazzy suits, interest in women, Big Brother appearance and impeccable oratory. Some even know him for his politics. He’s perhaps the world’s most famous anti-war politician, mistrusted by many for his relationship with now-deceased Saddam Hussein and family, and the accusations that have been thrown at him by newspapers and rival politicians.
It was in October 2003 that his latest crusade began, though, after he was kicked out of Labour by the Prime Minister for calling the government “Tony Blair’s lie machine” and exhorting British troops to mutiny in Iraq. (More recently, Galloway said that he believed an Iraqi suicide bomber could find moral grounds to assassinate the Prime Minister.) Following huge anti-war marches by the Stop the War movement, which he helped found, he then went on to set up the Respect party, binding together hard-left and Islamic elements into a unique coalition. This won him the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 by the slimmest of margins, following a bitterly-fought campaign against incumbent Blair babe Oona King.
And then came Galloway’s thrilling performance in front of a US Senate Subcommittee. Charged with receiving pay-offs from the Iraqi regime in the form of oil concessions, Galloway described his two accusers as a “pro-war, neo-con hawk and the lickspittle of George W. Bush”. He added: “I expect no justice from a group of Christian fundamentalist and Zionist activists under the chairmanship of a neo-con George Bush.”
To top it off, after suing just about every newspaper in the UK, he appeared on Al-Jazeera TV to call George Bush and Tony Blair “criminals... responsible for mass murder in the world”, before launching a full-out assault on the “globalised capitalist economic system, which is the biggest killer the world has ever known”.
So just how did a Dundee school leaver end up as the most loved, or reviled, politician in Britain? I arrange to meet Galloway at his Westminster offices, a few days after his return from Cuba, where he’s been meeting his old friend Fidel. His newly-published Fidel Castro Handbook lies on the desk. The stink of his Montecristo’s [cigars] hang over the offices. I wonder how Yasmin, his hijabi researcher, can stand it. His ever-present aide Ron McKay is sitting in a crumpled patch, pink-faced and gruff, watching from the corner.
Under his tan, Galloway looks tired. “Well...” he pauses, “luckily, I’m a man who doesn’t sleep much, works all the time... but I intend to be in London more now. Last night I spent eight hours getting to Manchester to talk to 500 hundred people. Ah spent a hundred quid in petrol...”
“... plus hotel,” says McKay.
“... it’s too much,” continues Galloway.
Despite his fatigue, he’s more personable than you might imagine. Slimmer too. As ever, when not on the podium thumping out oratory, he speaks low and soft, choosing his words carefully, the odd archaic phrase slipping in.
I ask him about his childhood.
“I was always the boy at school who knew who the president of Uganda was,” he replies. “I always knew more about current affairs and politics than anyone else. That was the lingua franca around the breakfast table at my house... all the time, all the time.”
“I lived my first four years in an attic,” he adds, fixing me with that famous stare. “A one-room attic. There was no room for a cot. I actually slept as a baby in a draw! With an outside toilet in a slum. When we moved to a council housing estate, with an inside toilet that wasn’t always warm from the use of all yer neighbours, it was like moving to Beverly Hills!”
“I did some things I shouldn’t have done,” he remembers. “I was a bit of a rough boy, a street boy. But I don’t recall a moment of unhappiness as a school child.”
He recalls his first demonstration, the charging by police of 100,000 Vietnam protesters outside the US embassy in London in 1968. He was just 14. “These were heady times! And I was drawn fully into them. At the age of 14 I knew more about Vietnam than I knew about my own country.”
But, as he admits, he was more interested in chasing causes than chasing girls. “I was, I did chase girls too...” he splutters.
“... be honest,” says Ron with a guffaw.
“But it kind of helped in chasing girls,” Galloway winks, “that you were part of the revolution.”
To many, Galloway’s projected self-image as a modern revolutionary, was shaken to its core when appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, taunting ex-TV host and alcoholic Michael Barrymore and imitating a cat. He’d already claimed that, globally, he was probably the most famous of all the housemates, as most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims knew him. Before entering the show, he’d said it was “a chance to show a large and different audience what I’m really like” and that he did it “for Palestine”. The money he received was to go to his Palestinian charity, Interpal, and to pay for office staff for his party. Whatever the intention, Channel 4 edited out most of his political statements whilst in the house, and he was ridiculed in the press for his bizarre antics. Some of his constituents set up websites to complain about what they saw as a misuse of public funds (his MP’s salary): by the end of 2005, he had only participated in 15 percent of House of Commons votes since the General Election.
Galloway’s constituency is a place I have come to know well. On the wide, Roman-straight expanse of Whitechapel Road, Amharic, Arabic and Bangla jostles for attention with English, Russian and a dozen other tongues. The Cockney pubs are locked, peeling worlds filled with sullen faces. Outside, young men crowd to buy ladoo from the famous Ambala bakery, or dates imported from the Gulf. BMWs and Lexus saloons cruise down Commercial Road, hip-hop and grime beats thumping out.
There is overcrowding here, and desperate poverty, gangs, drugs, rising TB rates, and elders I meet still struggling with the English language. The perceived injustices of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other areas also lie close to the surface and soul of Banglatown; to the ummah, the worldwide Islamic brotherhood.
This is Galloway’s homeland, the place where the collection of Islamists, social reformers, anti-war protesters and hard-left revolutionaries that make up the Respect Unity Coalition, live and work.
I decide to spend time in Respect’s offices on Club Row, just off Bethnal Green Road. There, unnoticed, I watch Galloway at work on his blog; the chaotic rush of his Friday surgeries; hear tales of a Bengali restaurateur attacking the politician after failing to secure a seat on Respect’s national committee.
It’s also in and around the twisted East End streets nearby that I meet some of Galloway’s most trusted lieutenants. There’s Assad Rehman, the man who would later lead the Jean Charles de Menezes and Forest Gate raid protests; Abjol Miah, a stick-fighting champion reformed through faith; and Rasul, a young man I get to know after his release from jail. He had been a “top shotta”, a notorious drug dealer who ran protection rackets and a “honkey basher”, attacking whites and firebombing pubs. For men like Rasul, George has become a powerful force for good.
It is also back at Club Row that I get to know McKay a bit better.
“I’m George’s best friend,” he tells me one day, when he’s finished firing off an angry letter to a newspaper. “I can speak for him. We are on a like mind in just about everything.”
A long-time journalist, he’s known George, as he calls him, since they met in Beirut in 1977: he a young reporter for The Sunday Times, Galloway a rising star of the trade unions and Scottish Labour movement.
“I was covering the revolution: he was fomenting it!” he laughs. He remembers how the locals wanted a game of football on the beach, “fedayeen against imperialists”. He chuckles. “We beat them, too!”
It’s McKay who confides in me that George might not have done Big Brother had it not been for an expensive divorce and waiting out payments from his Daily Telegraph libel battle. “Aye, he thought he could reach through and out to the rest of the public. I did warn him not to”.
McKay later invites me to Galloway’s apartment off Brick Lane. Around us are Ray Winstone videos; a sweatshirt I recognise from Big Brother; underwear drying on the chairs. Ron talks about the man he’s known for so long: “He was never much of a drinker, and I’ve known George for a long time. I think his father was a pretty strict teetotaller.”
Back in his Westminster office, Galloway tells me that he still thinks back to those days with his mother and father in their Dundee council home, and marvels about his strange journey from there to here.
“Sometimes I do pinch maeself,” he says, “and ask if I’m really sitting here with Fidel Castro. Once I remember sitting in an anteroom... well a room the size of a football stadium, with a carpet 12 inches thick, and a sofa filled with goosedown, waiting for an interview with the then-Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and now the King. And the hall was surrounded by black men with curved swords. And I did think to maeself, how come a guy from a council housing estate in Dundee ended up here?” He smiles. “No, I do.... my parents never left Britain till they were in their fifties, whereas I’ve been round the world more times than I can count and kinda wish I didn’t have to travel anymore”.
If his working class upbringing has bought him anything, it’s an easy way with under-privileged that’s surely the envy of many a rival politician. One day, I watch as he charms his way through his constituency, signing autographs for giggling hijabis who’ve seen him on Big Brother, walking into carefully-selected shops and the ubiquitous PFCs (Perfect Fried Chicken), hugging Bengali elders with their henna-stained beards, a roadshow of oddball whites in tow (“d’ya wanna meet Jow-erje?” they screech), united in rage over housing privatisation. George is all “inshallahs” [god willing] and “alhamduillahs” [praise be to god] flying thick and fast, making promises to sort each and every problem with a “salaam aleikum [peace be upon you], brother”. Even if he’s not ‘reverted’ to Islam (despite what some Bengalis think) it seems he understands the language of the East End well enough.
Each time a young female approaches – and there are many of them – he smiles, his eyes sparkling and suddenly alive. There’s something about the Scot that just seems to attract women: attention he clearly revels in. When I ask him about this, he grins knowingly, winks and says: “Looking, but not touching, son.”
His second wife, a Palestinian academic, is currently divorcing him. She’s said she received a number of phone calls from women who claimed to have had romantic links with her husband. She adds that Galloway had tried to smooth things over by telling her it was a plot by an unnamed intelligence service to discredit him.
“I should tell you,” she says, “that when he told me his new party was going to be called Respect, I went upstairs and cried. How can he call it this when he doesn’t even treat his own wife with respect?”
Aside from women, Big Brother is a frequent topic of conversation around Galloway. Many of those I get to know in his camp feel it damaged them. “I do like the guy,” said Rania Khan, one of the young Respect councillors I befriended, “but know how people can dislike him. He can create separation.”
Of course, the British press seem united in their love of exploiting this polarising effect. But Galloway being Galloway takes full advantage of any opportunity he gets to take the battle back to the media. In March 2006, sitting in the Respect offices, I see his annoyance, then satisfaction, as he chats to Ron about ‘outing’ the Fake Sheikh, Sun journalist Mahzer Mahmood. The latter had tried to set him up in a sting operation, Galloway says, telling me about a meeting he’s had with several Arab ‘businessmen’ in a posh London hotel, but that he’d recognised the ‘heavy’ serving as their driver. They’d made anti-Semitic statements and asked how they could give money to politicians. It seemed rather crude.
“We’re gonna publish his photo!” Galloway exclaims triumphantly, pointing to an image of Mahmood on his computer screen. Ron nods with satisfaction. “No good him complaining now...” A few days later, despite attempts by the paper to launch an injunction, this is exactly what happens.
On the criticism he receives for his Big Brother appearance, Galloway says that he was doing no more than what many other politicians and celebrities do every year: just clowning around to raise money for charities such as Comic Relief. He adds that “other MPs might have been at the House of Commons, and some of them might have been propping up the bars. Other MPs might have been on exotic foreign trips, fact-finding in the Seychelles or the Maldives. I was trying something different”. He always claims that the Palestinians had benefited, via his charity Interpal.
But Galloway maintains that he was being vilified him long before his notorious reality TV appearance. He was good at what he did, he reasons, and that made him “dangerous” to the powers that be.
“At the risk of sounding immodest,” he tells me, “my belief is that they dog me because I’m better at it than the others. If I were a sandal-wearing, duffel-clad ineffectual Davy Spart, with no ability to win hearts and influence people, they wouldn’t attack me… they wouldn’t dog me.”
He takes a quick breath. “But as I’ve showed, especially in the last five years, I have the means of – and by the grace of God, the ability – to persuade people. I frequently hear people say ‘I never thought I would agree with you’. That’s alarming for people who believe the opposite of my beliefs, because that means I’m dangerous.”
In this context, I wonder, would he revise or reword his comment last year, that he could see grounds for a suicide bomber to assassinate Tony Blair?
“No, not at all, what I said I stand by,” he says, sounding mildly surprised. “But what I stand by is what I said. What I said. Not what The Sun said I said. He [Piers Morgan] asked me if an Iraqi suicide bomber could construct a moral case for the assassination of the Prime Minister. Now, how long have you got? The case is endless. I merely said, if I was an Iraqi – whose country has been destroyed, whose family have been killed, whose brothers are in prison camps and living in a country where there’s a foreign soldier on every corner – of course I could construct a case!”
But what of the central question that vexes the MP? Where does the entertainer end and the politician begin? What’s he more passionate about – Palestine or Galloway PLC?
After shadowing him for all these months I have little doubt that Galloway has a genuine and rare passion for his causes. Too often, though, the self-promotion seems to confuse rather than clarify his intentions: is his future in Respect and the East End... or elsewhere, in the world of the media and celebrity?
Perhaps the most revealing moment in our conversation comes when I ask him about his deep regard for Che Guevara.
“Well, from the very earliest of times as a teenager,” he said. “I fell in love with the example of Che Guevara. I was in on the first wave of his supporters and I have watched with satisfaction as the icon that he represents become a global ‘brand’. if you like, for rebellion.”
Is this, then, the MP’s modus operandi? To become a global brand for new-revolutionary politics? Is Galloway, quite deliberately, creating a circus around him?
“If by that do you mean am I entertaining,” he says, “I hope so! There’s no reason why the devil should have all the best tunes. If I can draw an audience and make them laugh, as well as educate them, that’s a good thing, no?”
This story first appeared in Arena magazine ©2007 and then in The South China Morning Post magazine
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If you enjoyed this piece, read up my story on George Galloway's original election in the East End of London