There are few politicians in Britain who are attacked by the courtiers in the press and the mandarins in power more ferociously than George Galloway, a former member of Parliament and an icon of the left. They routinely shower him with insults and accusations. This is because there are few politicians willing to as ferociously name and condemn the crimes and injustices carried out by the American and British governments. He has for many years unequivocally stood up to defend the human rights of Palestinians, thundered against Israeli war crimes and demanded justice, leading him to be attacked as an anti-Semite. He has long opposed the Western sanctions and the endless wars in the Middle East, generating charges that he is a defender of terrorists. He has steadfastly raised his voice on behalf of those persecuted by the American government, including WikiLeaks Publisher Julian Assange.
The Economist once described Galloway, who spent more than 25 years in Parliament, as “the hate figure for the British establishment,” which, given who constitutes the establishment, is the highest of compliments.
I interviewed Galloway in London.
Chris Hedges: Let’s begin with this strange political moment—the rise of figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, a very Trump-like figure, perhaps a smarter version of Trump. How did we get here? From the start of your political career, you spoke out on behalf of the working class, how it was being attacked through neoliberalism, which corrupted the Labour Party the same way it did the Democratic Party in the United States.
George Galloway: Ontology is important. We need to define what is right-wing and what is populist. Some of the appeal of Trump, of Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party in Britain, is the very non-right-wingness. The apparent standing up for the little man, standing up for the worker against big business, against the bankers and the establishment—Trump played that card very well in the Rust Belt of the United States. Nigel Farage played it very cannily in similar places in the Brexit referendum in Britain. The support they garnered was not in fact right-wing, but left-wing. It was an anti-capitalist critique of the kind of finance capitalist model that has beggared millions of people and whole areas of your country and mine. When they say populist, I wonder if they really mean popular. I am attacked as a left-wing populist. But what does that actually mean?
My politics have not changed—perhaps this is a condemnation of me—not a single inch from my teenage years. I stand at exactly the same place. It’s everyone else that moved around me. Insofar as the kind of politics and approach and style that I’m employing are popular, that’s what drives the prevailing orthodoxy crazy. Dr. Johnson, a great Englishman of letters, said, ‘The grimmest dictatorship of them all was the dictatorship of the prevailing orthodoxy.’ I stand up against that from my political standpoint. So does Farage. So, to an extent, does Trump.
Now we come to the ontology of what you call the resistance. The pussy hats and the achingly liberal resistance to Donald Trump leaves me entirely cold. I know they would not be out there protesting worst crimes that the Clinton crime family and the crooner Obama would and did commit. It’s the vulgarness, the brashness, the ugliness of Trump they oppose. But Trump is just American imperialism without the lipstick. Hillary would have had the lipstick. But the crimes would have been the same—arguably much worse.
CH: Figures like Trump and Boris Johnson are con artists. They are using the issues you spent your political career actually fighting for. …
GG: Certainly Boris Johnson. Beyond the mop of blond hair and the rancid morals, I don’t think there’s that much to compare between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Boris Johnson is unequivocally a character of the 1%. He was educated at Eton and Oxford. He has spent his whole life in the milieu of the ultra-rich. The real upper class. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is to some extent on the outside. He was fabulously rich, although six times bankrupt. Perhaps not as rich as he claims. He has some identification with those on the outside. Con artist, definitely. But not the same kind of con artist as Boris Johnson. I was not happy that Donald Trump became the president of the United States. But I was very happy that Hillary Clinton did not.
CH: The Clintons, like Tony Blair, betrayed their base. Obama [did so] as well. He was quite conscious of what he was doing, unlike George W. Bush.
GG: Trump is failing the people he conned. Whereas Boris Johnson won’t even try to con them. He will not pretend to the British working class that he’s in it for them. Not really.
CH: What is the attraction of figures like Johnson and Trump who turbocharge the looting and pillage by the 1% and the consolidation of power by the global oligarchic elite?
GG: The way they win power is by correctly identifying real, material, objective realities amongst the masses of the people. Trump said to the people in the so-called Rust Belt [that] it’s the Clintons, NAFTA and super-nationalism, and the finance capital model that these people represent, that have done this to you. That was a correct identification and correct analysis. The fact that he’s a creature of the same swamp, and far from draining it is filling it, only comes later. But the existence of these grievances is what the left ought to have been doing. The British Labour [Party] movement, not just in Parliament, but in a broader movement, even in trade unions, in political parties of the left, bought into neoliberalism. The failure of the Labour government of the 1970s, the rise of Thatcher Reaganomics, knocked the stuffing out of the left. They began to follow the line “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
CH: [Margaret] Thatcher reportedly said, “My greatest creation was Tony Blair.”
GG: New Labour was her greatest creation. The left went along with that. And then the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a further oceanic loss of confidence. Instead of consistently standing up for working-class interests—against corporate capitalism, against globalized capitalism, standing up for the people of your own country—they liquidated their previous existence. The working people, quite correctly, thought, “You’re no longer for me. You’re no longer part of me. You’re no longer with me.” That’s a correct identification.
Jeremy Corbyn has rowed back from that into more familiar waters. Insufficiently well, hampered massively by the Blair-ite rump. It’s not really a rump, it’s a ramp actually because it’s quite a lot of MPs whose main purpose is to sabotage him. I know these are not things that can compare across the Atlantic all that easily. But that’s what’s happened here. The working class was abandoned by social democrats. Of course, people to the right of them, these populist figures can move in and steal some of their former clothes.
CH: How do we effectively build a political movement that stymies the rise of these very frightening alt-right entities and these political figures? We’re not doing a very good job of it in the United States.
GG: Not that good here either. First, we have to correctly critique what is wrong with the approach of the alt-right populists. That is to say, not critique what is right about what they’re saying, but to say it better and more convincingly. To say to the workers in the Rust Belt in our countries, “We stand for you. We’re going to fight for you and everything that is in your interests we will support. Everything that is against your interests we will oppose. Whoever else is saying the same thing, you can believe us because we are a part of you. We are your party. We are the people who represent you on a daily basis.” Secondly, to develop an iconography, a vocabulary, that can appeal to people. If you’re waving the flag of the European Union, you will leave the working class in the north and the south, in the west, and south Wales, cold.
The people of this country identify with this country. So, you have to. If you sneer at patriotism, if you sneer at people who actually, warts and all, love their country. … John Lennon once said, “If you want a revolution, don’t go waving pictures of Chairman Mao.” He was right. Chairman Mao leaves them cold on the streets of England. You have to find the iconography, the vocabulary, that fits.
The most impressive figure of my political lifetime was Georges Marchais. He was the leader of the Communist Party of France. He talked of socialism in the colors of France. He talked of France keeping its nuclear weapons but pointing them both ways. He was a figure of the French working class. It’s no accident that as an individual he was the most popular political figure in France, left or right.
CH: Are xenophobia and Islamophobia the driving forces behind support for Brexit?
GG: If you fill the atmosphere with hatred of the Muslims as an other, to further your foreign policy abroad, you’re going to get blowback at home. If you tell everyone that one new Hitler after another—from Nasser, through Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi, Bashar al-Assad … I’ve probably forgotten a few Hitlers on the Nile and the Euphrates—if you fill people, the atmosphere, with that kind of mentality, then how do you expect some people not to blame Abdul, who owns the news agent, or the 7-Eleven, on the corner? It’s inevitable. We predicted it. It’s come to pass.
CH: Is the resurgence of white nationalism an effective mechanism in the hands of figures like Trump and Boris Johnson? Does this divide the country and disempower socialists such as yourself?
GG: There is racism in Britain, of course; how can it be otherwise? We were the senior partner in empire for a very long time. You can’t have an empire without notions of racial superiority. How else can you justify occupying and ruling other people and their countries? You’re the father figure holding their hand until they are able to govern themselves. There is racism in Britain. But if you think Britain’s racist, you’ve never lived in France.
It is not as bad in Britain as it is elsewhere in the European Union. Similarly, there are real material reasons for racial antagonism on the part of the majority here. The British government moved a group of Islamist fanatics to Manchester who were known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The clue was in the name. That Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were cosseted there by the British state for the day they could be sent back to fight in Libya.
One of their sons blew up a lot of our children in the Manchester Arena not that long ago at an Ariana Grande pop concert. It’s legitimate to hate the people who did that. It’s not racist to hate the people who murdered people on this very bridge. [He motioned toward London Bridge.] [Who] cut their throats, drove cars into them. It’s not racist to hate them. If you claim it is, you are actually helping the racists. The existence of an element of Islamist fanaticism on the edges of the Muslim community here in Britain or anywhere in the world should be attacked as ruthlessly by the left as it is for opportunistic reasons by the right.
This is a mistake the left has made. I always say to people, “Never confuse me with a liberal.” I’m not a liberal. I’m actually quite ill-liberal in many regards. I’m a socialist, not a liberal; that’s a different thing. Never get caught seeming to support extremism amongst sections of the community. Be as ruthless. If I was the mayor of London, I’d be hunting down al-Qaida. I’d be out there in a high-vis vest with the police in the mornings, raiding their houses. Whereas quite often, the so-called left looks like they care more about the criminal than the victim. They care more about the human rights of the terrorists than the victim of the terrorist. So, we have to be much smarter.
CH: I have interviewed members of al-Qaida and Islamic Jihad. These figures do not come out of religious households. They came out of petty crime, sometimes more than petty crime, drug addiction.
GG: Sri Lanka is the first time one of these suicide mass murderers came from families that were actually religious and not petty criminals. So, that’s undoubtedly true. But it’s not to say they don’t exist. They exist. They are a Siren on the rocks, seeking to lure young Muslims onto those rocks of extremism and a cult of death. We have to call them out. We have to struggle against it. It can’t only be solved by the military, the police and legal action. It’s necessary but not sufficient.
CH: The North African immigrants that live in banlieues outside of Paris have no jobs. They live in appalling conditions. The racism, as you pointed out, in France runs very deep. They are segregated from most French people. They are not considered—although they may have lived in France since they were 2—to be French by the French. They go back to Tunisia and they’re not considered Tunisian. There’s a loss of identity, a loss of work. These are the contributing factors, which gets back to the reconfigurations of these economies by neoliberalism, which cast aside not just immigrants but huge sections of the working class and working poor as human refuse.
GG: Exactly. I’ve just been writing for my website about the BBC series “The Looming Tower.” We contributed to the rise of this fanaticism in three ways. The first one you just mentioned. The second is by endlessly supporting by all means corrupt dictators, medieval kingdoms, leaving the people of these Muslim countries bereft of any other path out of their misery. Thirdly, by directly assisting al-Qaida and ISIS in Iraq, in Syria. We provided funding, weapons, propaganda and other material on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. So, if an Islamist fanatic is blowing himself up in the Caucasus, in Chechnya, that’s fine. We’ll help him. We’ll talk about his human rights. But if he’s running on the bridge in London cutting people’s throats, we’ll describe him in quite different terms. Thrice we have assisted the development of this fanaticism.
CH: Those of us who stand up for Palestinian rights are immediately attacked as anti-Semites. The press is an echo chamber, amplifying those attacks. Does Israel have a lock on Britain as they do in the United States?
GG: It doesn’t. But it has a bigger lock than I imagined. The last four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the success by which they have done that, the scale of which they have done that, shows they do have a bigger lock than I thought. Not even in Israel does this Zionist movement have a bigger lock than it does in the United States. Nothing compares to that.
It’s a trick. An Israeli Cabinet minister, Shulamit Aloni, giving me dinner in her house in Tel Aviv, literally told me it was. “It’s a trick,” she said. “We always do it.” They do it because it works. If someone stands up for Palestinian rights, the first default position is to call them an anti-Semite. The fact that someone like me [is attacked as an anti-Semite], with my politics, and the basis of my politics is so heavily Jewish, from Marx, through Trotsky and Chomsky. Half of the Bolshevik Party’s central committee was Jewish. According to the right wing, I am involved in a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. The idea that I can be described as an anti-Semite is pitifully absurd. Ditto Jeremy Corbyn, who comes out of the same stable as me more or less. I’d like to think it doesn’t work. But to some extent it does. My wife, who is a person of color, an Indonesian woman, was abused in the street the other day as the wife of an anti-Semite, the wife of a racist. It’s absurd and effective, but less effective than it was before. If you call everybody an anti-Semite, then eventually nobody is an anti-Semite. The boy who cried wolf is a parable of note for a reason.
CH: The real anti-Semites, the Christian right of the United States, have become a political ally of Israel. It’s the equation of anti-Semitism with opposition to the government of Israel. One of the biggest racists in the Middle East is [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu.
GG: There’s worse than him waiting in the wings.
CH: Where are we going? It’s a frightening direction if things don’t go right. What are the forces that frighten you? What does the left have to do?
GG: I’ll be honest, I’m not as pessimistic as you. I have faith in the people. I always have. I can only speak for my own people here. We hate fascism. We stood alone against fascism. Anyone who presents in the form of fascism will be rejected here. There’s not a single fascist counselor in Britain, not a single fascist MP in Britain. There never will be. Fascists are counted in the hundreds, not in the millions, like they are in many European countries. They are in almost every parliament in Europe. They’re in many governments in Europe. But they never will be here.
I believe in the chaos of the British political scene at the moment. It’s perfectly possible that the Labour Party could be the next government. Maybe soon. Parliament is in complete chaos over the Brexit issue. It’s one of the reasons I supported Brexit. But not the main reason. Out of that chaos, it may welcome a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. As someone who has known Corbyn well for 40 years, I can hardly believe I’m saying those words.