George Galloway is wearing all black – black jacket, shirt, trousers, no tie. Vigorously powdering his face and affectionately brushing his lapels is his wife, Gayatri, who tells me cheerfully that she always sits in on his interviews.
“Smile, Mr Galloway,” chirps the photographer.
“Not much to smile about,” comes the gloomily droll reply.
In this melancholy attire, with his thunderous expression and glistening blue eyes, one could be forgiven for assuming that the infamous MP for Bradford West is in mourning. But he certainly isn’t. Quite the contrary, he is orchestrating someone’s death. He is planning The Killing of Tony Blair.
This is the stark title of a film that Galloway, former Labour MP and parliament’s only Respect party representative, has been crowd-sourcing funding for over the past few months.
At the time of writing, £163,891 has been pledged, far beyond his £50,000 goal to go towards making a documentary he plans for global cinema release. And the number of backers is impressive. Clearly, Galloway has quite a bit to smile about.
“People are revolted by Tony Blair, not just by the killing that he did, but the killing he is making. That’s why the movie’s called The Killing of Tony Blair; Triple entendre.”
The third meaning presumably being the killing of Blair’s reputation. This is a specialist subject of Galloway’s, who was ousted from the Labour Party in 2003 for his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, describing Blair and George W Bush, in one of his characteristically flamboyant turns of phrase, as “wolves.”
Galloway’s aim in life, both politically and in the media, seems to be to have Blair tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Court. His vendetta against the divisive former PM often comes across as intensely personal, and, as it is inextricably linked to the trajectory of his own parliamentary career, partially it must be.
Galloway made a name for himself as a feisty ‘old Labourite’, and once the Iraq War rocketed onto the government’s agenda, and he was expelled from his party, his prominence as a politician and speaker – he is an extraordinary orator – amplified. He soon managed to bump New Labour champion Oona King from her Bethnal Green & Bow seat in a fiery 2005 election campaign. His opposition to the Iraq War was a factor in this, there being a large Muslim community in the constituency.
Of this campaign, King, now Baroness of Bow, wrote in her diaries: “Spending time with Galloway is like dipping your toe in a bloodbath”.
He proceeded with his fervent anti-Zionist beliefs to win support among Muslim voters, his own political party Respect becoming popular among that demographic for its foreign policy stances – anti-war, pro-Palestinian people, immigration-friendly. It also was conceived as a socialist party to provide an alternative to New Labour, which, by this stage, was well to the right of its leftwing origins.
Galloway is one of parliament’s most eccentric characters. His personal life is a garish Daily Mail dream sequence. Now married to his fourth wife, who is over 30 years his junior, the Respect MP is often referred to sardonically as ‘Gorgeous George’. He is also often labelled a champagne socialist (despite being teetotal; “I’ve never tasted alcohol,” he says proudly), having put his London home up for £1.5m earlier this year, and was tagged “most expensive backbencher” in 2006 after an MPs’ expenses study by the LSE.
A regular media presence on state-backed Iranian news channel Press TV and passionate public speaker, he remarks earnestly, “People pay money to hear me speak. There are never empty seats, and there’s definitely a market for what I have to say.”
Yet at the same time Galloway is coy about certain aspects of himself and his politics. Despite Jemima Khan once writing in the New Statesman that he had converted to Islam, he refuses to answer questions about his religious beliefs. So I ask him about Tony Blair’s instead.
“My complaint is that he is a hypocrite,” he growls. “Christians believe in the prophets, peace be upon them; Blair believes in the profits, and how to get a bigger piece of them.” This poetic wordplay is just one example of the rhetorical coils and springs that fizz through his speech. Even when simply addressing me in this drafty parliamentary meeting room, he is a raconteur.
Galloway appears to be driven by faith derived from somewhere, even if he won’t articulate it. He believes there isn’t enough of it in politics.
“If everyone in the world behaved according to the Commandments, it would be a better place. It’s the fact that we don’t behave according to these Commandments that is the source of the drift towards ruin.”
One aspect of this ‘ruin’ is characterised by Blair’s “grisly money-fest” since leaving office. “Once upon a time, being prime minister, or president for that matter, was the pinnacle,” Galloway laments, “and now it’s just something to put on your résumé, on your way to your real job – the job that will make you rich.”
And it’s not only Blair who finds himself skewered by Galloway’s caustic interjections. The Bradford MP’s horror at the current PM is palpable, to the extent that he recommends an alternative: “I admire David Davis on the Tory side; the Tories made a mistake in not making him their leader, in my opinion.”
He condemns David Cameron’s rejoinder against his question during a recent bout of PMQs. The PM, regarding military intervention in Syria, insisted he had the best answer to the crisis: “Not crawling up to dictators and telling them how wonderful they are”.
Why does Galloway think the PM said this to him? “It’s a fairly absurd thing to say,” he counters, “especially from him, because all of his friends in the Arab Middle East are dictators. In fact, they’re regularly in Downing Street. The ‘Butcher of Bahrain’, one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, was recently in No 10.
“The Saudi dictatorship – it cuts people’s heads off in public every Friday afternoon, tortures them, hanging them upside down, applying electrodes to their genitals, and so on – are Mr Cameron’s best friends.
“So, he was talking in a mirror to himself, when he talked about crawling up to dictatorships.”
He speaks slowly and deliberately, looking intently at me with his distinctive, piercing gaze. It’s easy to see why so many accept his lines of argument. However, the perception of Galloway as someone who has chummied up to dodgy overseas operators is not entirely unfounded.
He visited Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1994, when many allege he praised the leader’s “courage, your strength, your indefatigability” (though he argues he was addressing the Iraqi people); he has denied that Hezbollah is a terrorist group; he has been accused of admiring Bashar al-Assad and his “reforming zeal”, recently making money from a seemingly pro-Syria broadcaster, and his Press TV association remains controversial.
One senior Tory MP gives me his view of Galloway: “Labour absolutely hates him, and I deeply dislike him because he does financial dealings with some very shady people.”
However, it’s Cameron and co who Galloway insists are the immoral ones, citing their bid to intervene in Syria, and the coalition’s harder line on immigration. He accuses the government of using scaremongering tactics to stir up an Islamophobic frenzy – “to whip up a psychosis” – in this country.
“The rightwing wish to create a fear and loathing of immigrants, of the other, of the different, and they hope to gain votes from it. It’s the most despicable tactic, but familiar…
“The Notting Hill set that runs the Conservative Party would never dream of thinking they were racists, would pride themselves on the people of colour that they have around their table at dinner parties, which just makes it all the more sick.
“This is not the Monday Club that’s running the party, this is the Notting Hill set and yet this is a course they have deliberately chosen.”
He chastises me for referring to the government’s recent discussions about women wearing the niqab as a “debate”, dubbing it instead “a witch-hunt”, and in his arresting Shakespearean phrasing, calls ministers’ questioning when and where the face veil should be worn “the dredging of the most foul barrel”.
“Virtually no women in Britain at all wear a veil,” he thunders. “It is a complete non-issue, but it’s being deliberately created into an issue, to generate political profits from racism and Islamophobia – it’s despicable.”
I ask if politicians who broach the subject of a crackdown on immigration, an undeniably popular policy among the electorate, are necessarily racist. “Definitely,” Galloway snaps back. “Well, it might be worse than that. They may not be racists, but wish to profit from racism... Someone who is not themselves a racist, but who determines upon racist politicking in order to electorally profit, is worse than a racist.”
Galloway, who sees the London bombings as an “entirely predictable” result of the Bush and Blair wars, finds another result of the “fanatic Islamic extremism [which] has cascaded around the world”: the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby earlier this year.
“The difference between me and the hypocrites is I’m revolted whether it’s happening in Woolwich or in Syria – where we’re paying for it to happen. And indeed, if this alleged murderer had volunteered to go to Syria to carry out these decapitations, instead of Woolwich, the British government would have helped pay for it.”
I’m guessing he’s not a ‘racist van’ fan, then…
“It’s obscene… that Britain should come to this is, I think, a matter of sadness for many people.”
He proposes his own alternative banner, If he were in sole charge of a fleet of vans roving around the country:
“Instead of ‘shop a benefit cheat’, it would be ‘shop a tax-dodger’. It would drive round and round the Square Mile, the City of London, and encourage people to call a secret hotline on which these cheaters who brought us to the brink of disaster can be shopped.”
His feelings towards immigration are visibly visceral, making it all the more strange how complimentary he is about Nigel Farage. He even compares himself to UKIP’s leading wag, whom he describes as “a cheerful huckster”.
“I quite admire his ability. I understand why he’s popular, as he’s widely perceived to be telling the truth as he sees it – not as some focus group told him to see it – and in that sense he is instinctive. I don’t like his instincts, but he is instinctive. He’s widely held to be honest – and these are also some of the reasons why I have the following I have in the country.”
And what a following it is. He has over 165,000 followers on Twitter – “double the number of readers that The Independent has,” he crows – and says he has “very little need” for the BBC and mainstream broadcasters, editors or proprietors.
He recently scrapped about Syria with Daily Politics’ Jo Coburn (Galloway questions whether the Syrian regime would be “mad enough” to use chemical weapons), and has subsequently demanded an apology.
“I’m in a state of war with the BBC, and I promise you they won’t like it,” he rumbles darkly. “It’s just like Corporal Jones used to say in Dad’s Army: ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.”
But I suspect Galloway decries the mainstream press because he is riled by, perhaps a little frightened of, its coverage. At times, he sounds paranoid when discussing it, as if there is a conspiracy against him.
“We have a media that is controlled by people who hate me. That’s why they attack me every chance that they can.”
Press barons come under fire when Galloway refers to anti-immigration and Islamophobia. He recently re-read that beloved socialist work The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and was struck by the book’s description, way back in the 1900s, of debates over immigrants – Jewish ones, in this case.
“At the time [it was written], there was a scare by the equivalent of The Sun about Jews. All these Jews coming to England, with their foreign accents, their odd dress and the smell of their food, how they treat their women, who have to wear wigs, and so on.
“It’s almost a facsimile of what we have today, almost 100 years later, although this time the targets aren’t Jews,” he notes, “and indeed the Daily Express, which leads the campaign [against immigration], is owned by someone who is Jewish.” He is referring to proprietor Richard Desmond, who comes from a Jewish family.
He then turns his attention to another media magnate: “Mr Murdoch prides himself on being the most pro-Israel newspaper magnate of them all. So, as Mrs Thatcher once said, it’s a funny old world.”
The press has been after Galloway before, recently hammering him for remarks he made about the Julian Assange rape allegations. “Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” he declared memorably in August last year.
This called his support for women’s rights into question. Galloway reacts very defensively when I ask if he’s a feminist.
“Define feminist,” he fires back. Someone who believes in equal rights for women, I reply. What’s his definition?
“I’ll work with yours, that is fine. That’s a good one, and only a caveman or a madman would not accept women’s equality and strive for it.”
He says he doesn’t regret his comments about Assange, and instead turns accusations of chauvinism against the prime minister:
“We do have a problem with misogyny in every country… And so this kind of ‘Calm down, dear’ performance by Cameron in relation to a woman frontbencher a year or so ago, this may not be on the lips of all that many male politicians, but it’s definitely in their hearts.
“They don’t like being spoken to by a woman in that kind of way. I’m certainly not one of these people. Thus, I embrace feminism.” He pauses before the caveat, “As you define it.”
Galloway will certainly have to be a bit more careful what he says, when it comes to thinking about his political future. He tells me he may not run in 2015, calling parliament “2% terrifying, and 98% tedium”, as he’s considering going for London’s mayoralty the following year.
“I’m interested in running for the mayor of London in 2016 but I haven’t decided… I like elections more than I like serving. I relish them in the way most politicians don’t, and this is the only mass popular election that there is here.
“Seven million people have the right to vote in it; it’s the next best thing to a presidential election that you’re ever going to get in Britain. So, I relish running for the office, and the opportunity finally to be in power over substantial sets of important tasks in a city as great as London is obviously attractive.”
His electoral future is something he claims was discussed before summer this year, in a mysterious meeting with Ed Miliband about which there was much speculation. Galloway emerged saying the Labour leader had lied about their get-together (Miliband said it was about boundary proposals), and is keen to tell me his side:
“Even his mother would have to admit he was lying… I had many weeks before I told the Labour whips I would support Labour in the vote on boundary proposals, and I have five emails from Miliband’s office, in which they pursue me for the meeting, none of which includes the boundary proposals…
“It was not discussed that I would come back to the Labour Party – although it may have come up at subsequent meetings. The meeting ended with Miliband saying that ‘we must do this again, but not here’. Meaning here in the building [parliament].
“We discussed my intention to consider running for mayor of London, we discussed Bradford, we discussed the differences between us (us being Respect, them being Labour), and, to my great surprise, he asked me to remind him why I’d left Labour. I knew he was young, but I didn’t know he was that young. Having to remind him that I didn’t leave, I was expelled, came as a bit of a surprise.”
Galloway would only return to Labour if it “became Labour again”, and blames Miliband and New Labour for the rightward shift in UK politics. He snarls, “The Blairites are still there, trying to sabotage him.” Although he also believes “in a country like Britain, with its imperial history, there will always be support for rightwing, xenophobic ideas.”
Yet he has “no problem in principle” with a Labour–Respect coalition on a negotiated basis if his party were ever to gain more MPs. “In the end, I want to see the Tories out forever… Even I would settle for a New Labour government rather than a Tory one.” He also advocates a Lib–Lab coalition if Labour doesn’t achieve an overall majority in 2015. “Of course they should,” he concludes, somewhat mischievously.
How does he feel, having once charged out of a debate with a student at an Oxford college upon learning he was an Israeli, about negotiating with Miliband, one who strongly supports the state of Israel, and once had to deny calling himself a ‘Zionist’?
“I debate with Zionists all the time, but I won’t debate with Israeli citizens who are Zionists...
“I’ll talk to anybody, even Blair,” he insists. This isn’t consistent with his refusal to debate with that stunned young student, though. “No, I was talking about leaders,” he answers rather feebly.
“If the Palestinian people asked me – it’s an absurd idea, I know, as they are more than capable of doing it themselves – to sit down and negotiate with one of the leaders of Israel about a solution to their conflicts, then of course I would do it.”
If he did, you could predict which side would be the centre of attention. With a jovial goodbye after admiring the photographer’s snaps, Galloway and his wife skip out of the room. One thing’s for sure: whether remaining a backbench barracker, aiming to be London mayor, a full-time film director, a prolific broadcaster or even a Palestinian spokesman, George Galloway will keep on talking. Even if he’s not always smiling.