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"One day, I’ll be a national treasure"

George Galloway loves to talk, has no regrets about appearing on Big Brother and has big plans for B

George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, is a Muslim. He converted more than ten years ago in a ceremony at a hotel in Kilburn, north-west London, attended by members of the Muslim Association of Great Britain. Those close to him know this. The rest of the world, including his Muslim constitu­ents, does not.

“So you converted?” I ask at the end of our lunch at the back of Akbar’s café, on Bradford’s main high street, where we have enjoyed a halal, alcohol-free meal of Pakistani staples: tikkas, koftas and daal washed down with mango lassi. Galloway gave up alcohol when he was 18 and last week called for the bars in the House of Commons to be closed.

“I can’t answer that. God knows who is a Muslim . . .” he answers breezily.

“People ask me this, why did I affirm in Parliament when I swore in? The answer is: I had to take an oath of allegiance in which I don’t believe, to the Queen and all her heirs and successors, and I have no allegiance to any of them, and I could not possibly swear such a thing on a holy book. So nothing else should be read into the affirmation,” he tells me, brandishing what remains of a mutton chop.

“I wasn’t reading anything into that,” I say. “I know someone who attended your shahadah [the Muslim conversion ceremony].” He stares at me across the table, penetrating blue eyes squinted, pausing for the first time in an hour. His special adviser, a glossy haired Asian Pakistani called Ayesha, looks into her daal while his new bride, Gayatri Pertiwi – a Dutch-born Muslim of Indonesian descent 30 years his junior, seated beside him throughout the interview – smiles at me.

George and Gayatri performed the nikah, the Muslim marriage ceremony, four weeks ago at the Royal Theatre in Amsterdam, the day after his sensational and unexpected victory in Bradford. This means, presumably, that they are unmarried under British law. Galloway has had two previous Muslim marriages (and this marriage to Gayatri is his fourth marriage in total). However, a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man under Islamic law – although the other way round is allowed. I put this to him.

I catch a look between the two women. The silence grows awkward. Galloway puts down his napkin, clears his throat and says, not impolitely, “How’s that then? Are we finished?”and gets up from his leopard-print covered chair.

We were meant to be convening at the local mosque for juma (Friday) prayers, where Galloway usually meets the community each week, but the plan was cancelled when it transpired that I was coming with a photographer. Instead, George will be photographed in front of the controversial crater in the city ­centre, highlighting his campaign to expose the ineptitude of the former council that sanctioned the construction of a Westfield shopping centre in 2003. It never materialised, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of the city.

A man in a shiny convertible BMW honks his horn at a cigar-chomping Galloway, who has arranged himself for his portrait in front of a scaffold that shields the city centre’s abyss. He is staring into the middle distance in Napoleonic stance – chest out, chin up, head tilted back, hair blowing lightly in the wind, wearing his customary nightclub impresario garb of dark glasses, dark suit, dark T-shirt and tan.

Beyond Bradford

Galloway and I have met fleetingly in the past at Stop the War coalition events. I am familiar with his rhetoric about foreign invasions and occupations and have admired him as one of the finest orators in British politics.

Today, he is keen to talk about local issues. He needs to demonstrate that he is not only concerned by what goes on in Libya, Pakistan, Iraq and Palestine, as his critics have claimed. He points out that “it’s not an either/or”. Over lunch, he talks about Bradford’s youth unemployment figures (double the UK average) and its poor education record (145th out of 155 in the country), and how Bradford is the most segregated city in the UK. He sees this as primarily an economic issue: “where we choose to live is about the colour of our money, not the colour of our skin – two wards out of six are almost exclusively white and they are the richest areas”. As for interracial tensions, he has been surprised “by how little there is, not how much there is”, adding: “If there is enmity, it’s not from the Asians, by the way. Immigrants don’t hate the host community. Some of the host community hate the immigrants, but it’s not mutual.”

I wonder to what extent he has been forced to moderate his views to appeal to his culturally conservative Muslim audience. Not at all, he insists. He is “a long-standing, lifelong” supporter of gay rights, for example. “I say to any Muslim who questions me on that, if you allow people to discriminate against people on grounds of sexual orientation, you’re next – because the discriminators, the bigots, don’t just hate gays. They hate gays, they hate blacks, they hate Muslims, they hate immigrants . . .”

So what does he intend to do about the economic problems facing Bradfordians? “My first task is to highlight the sheer scale and extreme danger of youth unemployment.” Then, he will sell Bradford to the world. “I’m a good marketeer, I’ll be doing that here and abroad. And it has a lot of assets . . .” He lists them convincingly: ­affordable housing, proximity to major ports and cities, a “fabulous rural hinterland and a large entrepreneurial population”. He hopes to attract investment from the Gulf, “because those kings in the Gulf would like good relations with me”.

And what, I ask, of his poor voting (20 per cent) and attendance record when he was last an MP? “Voting records and attendance are, of course, two different things,” he points out amiably. “I seldom wished to vote for either the prime minister’s motion or either of the opposition’s amendments. The Tories propose one thing and Labour proposes slightly less. Well, I’m not in favour of slightly less. I abstained and there is no provision in parliament to abstain. You can’t record an abstention. So attendance is a totally different thing, as I frequently point out to people who I was threatening to sue over the matter. The CCTV cameras proved my attendance every day – including Christmas Day.”

Many of Galloway’s solutions to Bradford’s problems seem to be about bringing attention to them, which is unsurprising given that he is most at home on a platform, with a mike. Bradford has had more attention in the past few weeks, since Galloway’s by-election victory, than ever before, and he is already a local celebrity. Two young girls show up to have a photograph taken with him; his wife, seated primly on a bench nearby, looks on and laughs indulgently at his evident delight. A girl in a hijab passes us and asks, “Is that the bloke from Respect?” and looks thrilled when we confirm that it is. “Did you vote for him?” I ask. “Inshallah, I will,” she shouts back over her shoulder, as she rushes off for an autograph.

Galloway is acutely aware that he now needs to be seen as the man who can represent all his constituents; the white working class and the Muslims of Asian descent. He balks at the idea that it was only the Muslim vote that got him elected: “I won in every single ward in this ­constituency, including some wards where there’s not a brown or a black kid.”

Galloway may have successfully out-Muslim­ed Labour’s Muslim British-Pakistani candidate, Imran Hussain, during the election campaign, with his speeches full of “inshal­lahs”, his invocations of the Quran – “the people who invaded and destroyed Iraq . . . will burn in the hell-fires of Hell” – and his smattering of Arabic words: “We stand for justice and haq [truth].” Pamphlets were distributed declaring: “God knows who is a Muslim and he knows who is not. Instinctively, so do you . . . I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have.” (Galloway has denied he was responsible for these.)

However, Galloway has aspirations far beyond Bradford, and his Muslimness, which has been such an asset in Bradford could work against him across the rest of the country. This may go some way to explaining his attempts to keep his conversion private.

In the media, Galloway is often referred to as a Catholic. There must have been some white constituents in Bradford, who, although natural Labour supporters, preferred to vote for the white Catholic candidate rather than the brown Muslim one representing Labour. Meanwhile, his Muslim constituents delighted in the hints – “a Muslim is somebody who is not afraid of earthly power but who fears only the Judgement Day. I’m ready for that, I’m working for that and it’s the only thing I fear.” Many favoured a possible or a potential Muslim over a “lapsed” one, such as Labour’s Hussain, who, Galloway claimed in his campaign, was “never out of the pub”.

Galloway’s style is notably un-British; combative, hyperbolic and unashamedly confident. He doesn’t do self-deprecation, self-doubt or apology. He would have made a brilliant QC, with his forensic, retentive mind and his ability to win an argument. There are those who love him unconditionally, especially Muslims who feel that he stands up for them in a way that others have failed to do in British public life, but there are more who loathe him, from the politically apathetic to many in the press. There is no doubt that he is given a harder time by the media than most other politicians, even if he hasn’t ­endeared himself with his stock response to a loaded or critical question: “What a preposterous question that is!” Or, if the interviewer is female, “What a silly woman you are”.

Galloway has been libelled as many as 20 times and has won every case, resulting in £3m in damages, he tells me. He puts this down to the fact that he is “challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. I’m dangerous to these people because I’m able to persuade people of the correctness of what we’re arguing for . . . One day, maybe I’ll be a national treasure like Tony Benn, but not yet, I hope.” His eyes crinkle as he smiles. He has even threatened to sue the Canadian government and famously stood up to the US Senate, humiliating the pro-war brigade in a performance that few, having seen it, will ever forget.

He is as much a headache to the left as he is to the right and equally contemptuous of both. Ed Miliband’s name “brings forth ribaldry”, he says. When he watched the Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions, “Cameron knock­ed him for six with every ball. It was like watching Imran Khan on the crease – just whacked every ball to the boundary – and it looked like a boy against a man.”

He puts the knife in further. “I think one of the problems, call it Shakespearian or call it biblical, is that he is marked with the original sin of doing something that is unnatural, ­doing something against the natural order of things. It is moral turpitude to stand against your older brother and, in doing so, plunge a dagger into his breast. And I think that might, in the end, be a very telling point in what comes next. Because it would be even more Shakespearian if the brother got up out of the grave and murdered the brother that had murdered him . . .” .

The monologue is delivered in that very particular, slow, over-enunciated Glasgow accent of his; developed, I suspect, as a result of spending a great deal of time with people for whom English is not their first language and for whom Glaswegian requires subtitles. He hates everything about David Cameron, but he thinks “people underestimate him . . . he is a very formidable political force”.

My enemy’s enemy

The establishment treats Galloway with barely disguised contempt. On his first day in Parliament, the Prime Minister forgot to call him an honourable gentleman, and, on Newsnight in 2005, Jeremy Paxman failed to congratulate him after he won the Bethnal Green and Bow seat and instead asked him if he was proud to have “got rid of one of the very few black women in Parliament”. After his latest election victory, he was subjected to a series of hostile interviews on various news channels. Gallo­way is flawed but the reasons given by his detractors for their hatred – his vanity, his posturing – could equally apply to other far less maligned politicians.

His infamous speech to Saddam Hussein, in which he was captured on video declaring, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”, as well as his alleged championing of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, are cited most frequently by critics as reasons why he is not to be trusted. Galloway claims his use of the word “your” in relation to Hussein was meant in the plural sense, to refer to the Iraqi people facing sanctions and western aggression. More convincingly, he explains he had been a critic of the Iraqi regime, publicly calling Hussein “a bestial dictator” long before this, demonstrating “outside the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road, when British ministers and businessmen were going in and out doing trade”.

The truth is that Galloway, like others on the hard left, is guilty of a certain myopia when it comes to the faults and crimes (which often include horrendous human-rights abuses) of his enemy’s enemy, whom he tends to befriend, even as he remains clear-sighted when drawing attention to the abuses perpetrated by the west. That said, his critics are often equally hypocritical, as Galloway illustrates. While he admits to having met Assad once (he claims never to have been a supporter), he points out that the Syrian leader “never stayed in my house, though he did stay in the Queen’s, at Buckingham Palace”.

Those who criticise Galloway on the left tend to be more forgiving of Tony Blair’s courting of Colonel Gaddafi – or Barack Obama’s support for Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak, whom the US president described as “a stalwart ally . . . a force for stability and good”, and to whom the US gave $1.3bn of military aid in January last year.

Critics on the right seem less troubled by Cameron’s invitation to the king of Bahrain to visit Downing Street, or the Queen’s invitation to the Bahraini royal family to join celebrations for her jubilee this year, or, indeed, by the fact that virtually every politician in power has pandered to the Saudis, to whom we continue to sell arms. None of this excuses praising a war criminal. But it does make some of the ­selective criticism about fawning over dictators seem disingenuous.

At the end of our interview, Ayesha, a divorced working mother who joined Respect a few weeks before the by-election, sinks into her car seat and apologises for the many last-minute plan changes of the day. “Sometimes,” she says, “I feel invisible.” It is challenging, working with predominantly British Asian men, “but I’m getting used to being overruled”. She asks how I thought it went. I ask why Galloway won’t publicly admit to being a Muslim. She pauses and then says quietly, “Jemima, you know how it is . . .”

I’m not sure I do. Perhaps she means that ­Islamophobia could damage his political career. It can’t be a privacy issue – after all, Galloway was an incumbent politician when he wore a Lycra catsuit and lapped imaginary cream from the hands of the actress Rula Lenska on Big Brother, a performance that he insists he does not regret, though would not repeat.

“I always said, and even my close friends disagreed and still disagree, that Big Brother, in the end, would prove to be a benefit. It did. You would be amazed by the number of young people who say: ‘Can we get a picture of you? You were on Big Brother.’ It raised a lot of money and it gave me a lot of profile.”

He has no qualms about me quoting his wife or having the tape recorder on throughout lunch. They both seem surprisingly happy to talk about how and when they met, at a “peace and justice” conference in Leiden, Holland, six months ago. He was a speaker and she was attending in her capacity as “east and west consultant”. He spotted her in the crowd when she prompted the speaker. He recalls: “She shouted out, ‘Confucianism’ and I saw a flash of teeth and that was it. Now I will always have a soft spot for Confucius.” They smile at each other, as the newly in-love do. He gave her the plaque with which he had been presented and told her: “Keep this for our home because you are my future wife.” And then, he tells me, he proceeded to ask her to marry him every day until she agreed. Gayatri is charming: attractive, bright, friendly and forthcoming.

She looks suddenly at her watch. “Oh, it’s our six-month anniversary today,” she remembers, excitedly. “You’d better buy her some flowers. You’re a lucky man,” I say.

“Yes. I am.” He smiles, looking like the proverbial cat that got the cream. “I am,” he ­repeats. “Ma’shallah.”

Jemima Khan is a film and TV producer. Formerly a journalist, she joined the New Statesman as associate editor in November 2011.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master