'I've had a good series of wars'
He is one of our most demonised, and colourful, politicians. But who's the real George Galloway? Christopher Sylvester talks to him about love, loyalty, and the key to survival
When George Galloway achieved an historic landslide victory in Bradford West in March it was the latest instalment in a life that has proved more colourful than most. He has a new constituency and a new wife, a rare double whammy for any politician, but we have come to expect surprises from him.
The other evening I joined them, and a couple of friends, for a celebratory dinner. Throughout the meal – at least, between taking mouthfuls – he was holding hands with his new wife, Putri Pertiwi, a 27-year-old Dutch academic of Indonesian extraction, and a Muslim.
I have known George for 29 years and have met two of his three ex-wives and also the girlfriend for whom he left his first wife. I was a guest at one of his weddings and at the christening of his first grandchild, and have stayed in his home in Portugal’s Algarve on a couple of occasions. We first met when I was a young journalist on Private Eye and he was not yet an MP; and while I have never shared his politics, we have remained friends.
A veteran of six elections for the House of Commons, only one of which he lost, George suffered bad publicity when he was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow because he had one of the lowest voting records in Parliament, yet this was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of an independent MP.
‘In the British Parliament you cannot register an abstention,’ he explains. ‘The only two propositions generally on offer are the Prime Minister’s motion and the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment. In the last Parliament I seldom wished to vote for either, but that does not mean I was not in Parliament. In fact, I was there more than almost anyone else because my constituency was right next door. If people ask was I prominent in those five years, the answer would be yes. The number of votes I cast is a totally misleading rubric, and deliberately so.’
A backbencher in one of the main parties is too often treated merely as a voting machine. For the most part, he votes because he follows the party whip. George was, and is, a one-man party at Westminster. Certainly, when he spoke in the chamber he was noticed and listened to.
But he rejects the suggestion that he neglected the interests of his constituents. ‘Bethnal Green and Bow was an east London constituency with a giant immigrant population and mass poverty. We had a constituency office with five people working in it, most of them paid for by me personally. That constituency office plus my Parliamentary office were a hive of activity.’
The electors of his new constituency, therefore, can expect more of the same. ‘I’m working on a similar package for Bradford West,’ he says. ‘It will be a constituency office second to none in the country. We’ll have the maximum staff that Parliament pays for and we’ll raise funds to pay for extra staff to deal with the specific needs of Bradford West, which again has a large immigrant population and mass poverty.’
And George has plans for the constituency itself. He intends to raise money to save the iconic Odeon cinema building, next to the Alhambra Theatre and the National Media Museum, which is the second best-attended museum in the country. ‘Our plan is to turn that part of town into a cultural quarter, with an Anglo- Arab institute that I hope to persuade one of the Gulf sovereign wealth funds to pay for.
My second priority is to save the Bradford Bulls Rugby League Club, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, and my third priority is to save Bradford City Football Club, which is equally on the verge of bankruptcy. I’ve got different sheikhs in mind for each of these things.’
George welcomed the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the attempted revolutions in Bahrain and Yemen, though he opposed the intervention by Western powers and the Arab League in Libya. His comparison of his by-election victory to the Arab Spring has enraged some commentators because of his past praise of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for opposing the Zionist policies of Israel. But what does he think of Assad now?
‘I fully support the Syrian revolution,’ he declares. ‘I want to see the end of all the dictatorships in the Middle East and I hope that it can be achieved peacefully. But if peaceful change is not possible, then violent change is inevitable. I wholly support the Syrian people’s demands for democratic government. I just don’t support armed intervention in Syria, any more than I supported it in any other country in the region. I’ve written and broadcast that over and over but that doesn’t stop the misrepresentation.’
Social media played a large part in his byelection victory and are almost tailor-made for a maverick independent backbencher wanting to make himself heard. ‘When I entered Parliament [in 1987], mobile phones had scarcely been invented, the internet had not arrived, even the fax machine was hardly known. Now, these and other developments, especially social media, have transformed the political landscape.
‘I’ve got 30 million items on Google. Ed Miliband has four million. I have 150,000 followers on Twitter and 12,800 videos on YouTube, so anyone who wants to know what I really think can easily find this out. Those are the people who matter to me, the people who actually want to know the truth. If people want to find out about me they don’t have to depend on Rupert Murdoch to filter what they should know.’ The mention of Murdoch brings us to phone hacking. George was victorious in his action against News International, but does he have a full understanding of exactly how and why he was targeted?
‘I only know the chapter and verse of one instance, which was three days before a front-page splash about me in the News Of The World relating to a Cuban woman, which was itself a rehash of a story they had run eight years before. It was dug up and run again, with the insertion of a new detail saying that I had been accompanied on my trip to Cuba by an Arab prince. My companion had actually been the former New Labour minister Shahid Malik. I’ve never revealed that before. There’s an exclusive for you.’
Within a couple of days of his being elected in Bradford West, the papers were full of the news that George had married again. Shrieks of outrage accompanied the claim that he had abandoned his third wife, Rima Husseini, and their two children, one of whom was only four months old.
‘That’s because they don’t know the circumstances,’ says George. ‘My former partner Rima ended our relationship last summer and I left the house in west London at her insistence. The rest is private. I didn’t meet my new wife until November. I’m seeing my kids by Rima regularly. I’ve just dropped them off.’
Apart from his younger children, he also has a 29-year-old daughter, Lucy (who is two years older than his new wife), who has three children. ‘Lucy is married to a film producer named Jay Stewart,’ says George. ‘He is producing a movie later this year called The Enfield Poltergeist, in which I have a cameo part.’
George was a 21-year-old activist in 1975 when a single Palestinian man came into the Labour Party office in Dundee and told him the story of his displaced people. ‘That definitely changed the course of my life,’ he says. ‘It was always a weakness of the Labour Party I was in for 36 years – that it was not sufficiently internationalist. Internationalism is the zeitgeist now, especially among young people.
So my predilection for internationalism is fully in tune with the prevailing feelings among young people but also minority ethnic people. I’ve had a good series of wars over the last 10 years, in that, as the principal opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve managed to articulate the case against them in a way that has appealed to very large numbers of people.’
Daily tip from the lady archive
“PEOPLE cannot help being influenced by their surroundings and their environment; therefore how all important it is that both of these should be healthy and cheery, for health and happiness both go hand-in-hand.”The Lady. The Blessing of Old Health, 18th November 1920