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30 April 2012 Edition

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The colourful and controversial George Galloway speaks to An Phoblacht

BRITAIN’S NEWEST MP TALKS TO JAYNE FISHER WITHIN DAYS OF HIS SHOCK BY-ELECTION TRIUMPH IN ‘THE BRADFORD SPRING’

George Galloway with singer Frances Black, Sinn Féin MLAs Gerry Kelly and Barry McElduff

‘I was brought up in a house where every time my maternal grandfather had a drink he would tell me the story of how they executed James Connolly in his chair. We lived in the same street that James Connolly had lived in’

THE Bradford West by-election on 29 March saw a spectacular victory for George Galloway and the left-wing Respect Party, winning what Westminster’s newest MP described as “the most sensational result in British by-election history”.

Two weeks before polling day, the bookies had him as a 200/1 outsider; by the eve of the poll, they had stopped taking bets on him. With a 37% swing, a 10,000 majority and more votes than all the other parties put together, he took this formerly safe Labour seat since 1974 from under the noses of all the main political parties.

We meet in London. George has arrived for our interview straight from his first intervention at Prime Minister’s Questions, where he challenged the British Government over the war in Afghanistan.

We begin by talking about what the by-election result in the ailing industrial city in Yorkshire, in the north of England, says about the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government and the opposition Labour Party. Few had seen this coming, the mainstream parties among them, nor the massive scale of the victory.

“We saw it coming,” George insists convincingly. “There is obviously more than one factor but the fundamental issue is the rejection of the three main parties. They are completely discredited. They have left in their wake the expenses scandal, the Iraq War and various big let-downs over the last decade or more.

“Firstly, there was a really profound alienation from the main parties. It surprised even me how tangible that feeling was. I found myself pushing at open door after open door.

“Secondly, there is the absolutely chronic state of things in Bradford West. The economy is on the floor. There is literally a hole in the city centre, where they have knocked down a fair part it for a development that hasn’t happened. It turns out that they didn’t impose any penalty clauses on the developer if they failed to develop it, so you have a city council that knocked down its own city centre with no means of enforcing it to be rebuilt! Remarkable.

“And then there is mass unemployment in the constituency, especially amongst young people, which has tripled in a year and risen by 40% in the last three months.”

The Respect candidate’s highlighting of the injustices faced by young people played a big part in attracting their support and engagement in politics in very large numbers for the first time ever. This in particular contributed to what he dubbed ‘The Bradford Spring’.

His profile, energy, noted determination and political conviction gave Galloway an extra edge and made him stand out from his rivals for the seat.

“I had credibility with a large number of people in the constituency before I got there. They listen to my radio show, and watch the TV shows and YouTube speeches. I was not a stranger when I arrived there.”

Opposing racism, war and austerity were the key issues in the Respect campaign but sections of the media focused on his support from within the Muslim community.

“I’m supposed to feel guilty about that. Muslims support me because I support them. I defend them at home and abroad, just as I would defend any minority or any victim of British invasion and occupation, and indeed have done so all my life in relation to Ireland.”

The new MP points out that he secured support across all sections of the community. “It was said I won because of the Muslims when in the University Ward (which is as the name suggests home to people from very diverse backgrounds), I won 85% of the vote in an eight-horse race — surely a record in itself.”

We move on to discuss the wider international situation. Given his consistent opposition to war in Afghanistan, Iraq and to imperialist interventions in general, and his unstinting support for the Palestinian people, what’s his view of the current situation, in particular the Middle East?

“It is a very dangerous moment, especially between now and November when President Obama will presumably be re-elected. Israel has a window between now and November to really exploit everything in the hope that President Obama will have no alternative but to support them and, if the balloon goes up, to enter the war against Iran.

“Meanwhile, they are pursuing what is effectively a proxy war in Syria. They are not against Syria for any of the bad things about Syria (of which there are many) but for the good things about Syria: namely that it refuses to break relations with the Palestinian resistance, the Lebanese resistance and relations with Iran. It has to be for those reasons because all of the other bad reasons about Syria are shared with all of the Arab dictatorships.

“I heard a British minister the other day saying that ‘one family rule’ in Syria was unacceptable. Yet it didn’t appear to have struck him that virtually every government in the Middle East is one-family rule, and in the case of Saudi Arabia they have even given their name to the country.

“So it’s a proxy war against Syria but it is not going well. The attempts to bounce Russia and China into endorsing another Libya-style war failed. The big talk of the Arab dictators about intervention in Syria turned out to be just that, and the regime proved it is not without support. Of course, there are millions of Syrians who hate the regime, millions who don’t and millions in between. So it’s a very dangerous moment but somehow I feel we are past the moment of maximum danger on both fronts.”

Moving on to discuss his views on Ireland and the political progress of the Good Friday Agreement, what does he think about the current dynamics which as Sinn Féin and others would argue are moving towards Irish unity?

“I supported Sinn Féin before the Agreement and I support Sinn Féin after it. I think that the leadership of Sinn Féin is head and shoulders above the rest of the political leadership in Ireland, North and South, and I trust their judgement.

“I support the line of the Sinn Féin leaders and I respect them very much. I have known them more than 20 years and, in football terms, they have played a blinder.

“I agree that the march is ineluctably towards Irish unity. It may be a long time before that is formalised but in fact and in practice I think the border becomes more and more meaningless and will, in time, wither away. As Marx predicted the state would one day wither away, I think this border will wither away.”

Looking at the wider issue of the Left within Europe, given the economic crisis and the austerity offensive by right-wing governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere, what does he think are the prospects for advancing progressive alternatives?

“They are definitely brightening. I think that the Greek election will throw up a plurality of the vote for the Left of Pasok parties. The overwhelming majority of Greek voters are going to vote centre or Left. There are developments underway now here in Britain. There were, of course, important developments in Ireland. Sinn Féin did extremely well and other left-wing and progressive organisations did so too.

“That all points to the discrediting of the elite that I talked about earlier and the hunger for alternatives. If politicians are credible and can deliver the message in contemporary terms, rooted among the people, you can do spectacularly well.

“We ought to try and work together as much as we can on a European level. Not least because here in Britain there is a kind of Europhobic tendency which, far from being dead, has seen UKIP recently overtake the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. We need to have an alternative to that.”

George Galloway describes his background as being born “in an attic in a slum tenement in the Irish quarter of Dundee which is known as Tipperary”. Does this help explain what formed his combativeness and political drive?

“I suppose so. I kissed the Blarney Stone, literally, as a child — twice. But what it more properly explains is my hatred of imperialism. I was brought up in a house where every time my maternal grandfather had a drink he would tell me the story of how they executed James Connolly in his chair. We lived in the same street that James Connolly had lived in, St Mary’s Lane. My grandfather idolised James Connolly and was absolutely fixated on his death. It was the grotesque nature of that execution, of a man strapped to a chair because he couldn’t stand due to his wounds being executed. From when I was five years old, I can remember as a small child not knowing what he was talking about except for those words ‘James Connolly’ and his being shot in his chair.

“So I was brought up to hate imperialism and to hate British imperialism in particular. In my family the Union Jack was routinely referred to as ‘The Butcher’s Apron’. My first child actually got into trouble at school when she was eight or nine for describing the flag as ‘The Butcher’s Apron’. I managed to get my late grandfather’s words into The Penguin Book of Quotations. He really did coin this: when I told him that the teacher had said that Britain had an empire so vast that upon it the sun never set, he really did answer ‘That’s because God would never trust Britain in the dark.’ So Tipp, as it was known, had lots of people like us.”

As we wrapped up the interview, the new Member of Parliament for Bradford West, George Galloway (Respect), shook hands and smiled:

“My greetings to all the readers of An Phoblacht — The Republican News. I don’t always get time to read it now but it is always in my heart.”

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