‘I like heckling, polite heckling,’ George Galloway told me over a cup of tea in an Edinburgh hotel yesterday afternoon. A couple of hours later, the MP for Bradford West prowled onto the stage at the Assembly Rooms dressed like a white soul singer – black fedora, black jacket, white shirt pinned with portcullis cufflinks – to the sound of Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. Outside, a dozen or so members of the far-right Scottish Defence League shouted ‘George Galloway betrays his own country’ and waved Union flags. When I tried to take a photograph one rushed towards me bawling ‘Next time there’ll be violence.’ A larger counterdemonstration chanted ‘Master race, you’re having a laugh.’
Galloway was in Edinburgh for the latest instalment of Just Say Naw, his one-man speaking tour to convince Scots to vote ‘no’ in September’s referendum. ‘I’m not in it because I hate Scotland, I’m in it because I love Scotland,’ he told his audience. Despite his Irish Catholic background, he has something of the non-conformist preacher about him – down to his televangelist’s transparent headset – and he treated the lectern like a pulpit, leaning across it to issue fire and brimstone warnings about independence ‘poisoning’ Scottish politics for thirty years. Independence would ‘beggar the working class on both sides of the border’ and lead Scotland into ‘foreign wars’; the SNP are ‘Tartan Tories’ who gleefully toppled the Callaghan administration (‘oh how they partied, celebrating bringing down the government and ushering in Margaret Thatcher’); speakers of Scots Gaelic are ‘the most subsidised people on earth’.
Speaking without notes, Galloway’s goaded his flock to ‘go on, put your hand up’. But the congregation were not all true believers: the silent, well-dressed, middle-aged couples in the back rows looked suspiciously like Edinburgh Tories, possibly on the hunt for help in unlikely places as opinion polls suggest a narrowing of the referendum race. There were also some of Galloway’s former devotees since converted to the independence cause. Among the demonstrators outside the hall were members of the Radical Independence Campaign, which has achieved some success in galvanising leftwing support for leaving the union. Inside the hall, Galloway dismissed this ‘ultra-left madness’. ‘If I thought Scotland was on the verge of a Leninist revolution I would move back here but it isn’t… Stop pretending Tommy Sheridan is going to be the prime minister of an independent Scotland.’
In the interval I bumped into two friends who had come ‘to see what he would say’. One was a ‘soft yes’ but had ‘found a lot to think about here… especially about banking’. Galloway ‘doesn’t realise that independence is a great opportunity for the left, not just here but in England, too’, a Yorkshireman told me. When another Englishman made a similar point after the break, Galloway replied: ‘Stop dividing people when you should be bringing them together.’
Galloway’s answer to the ‘Scottish question’ is simple: ‘we need our Labour Party back’. Clearly his expulsion from Labour (in 2003, for bringing the party into disrepute) still rankles. ‘It was like a knife in the back,’ he told me. He isn’t part of Better Together, the cross-party ‘No’ campaign, but is reluctant to criticise it. (‘I’m going to be circumspect,’ he said when I asked for his thoughts on Alistair Darling.) There are Old Labour voters who might be persuaded by an argument based on internationalist solidarity. And judging by the numbers (500 in Glasgow, 400 in Dundee), Galloway still has an audience in Scotland.
But he could struggle to escape the contradictions of his own rhetoric. Ireland should be ‘united’ having been ‘denied’ independence, he says, but Scotland has ‘always’ had self-determination. The ‘ultra left’ in Scotland should not be listened to as it ‘has no support’, but why then should we listen to Galloway? When he headed the Respect list in Glasgow for the 2011 Holyrood elections the party polled only 3.3 per cent of the vote and won no seats. He says that the SNP is inherently sectarian, even though polling suggests a majority of Catholics voted for the party in 2011.
I live just beyond the boundaries of George Galloway’s former Glasgow Hillhead seat. When I got home from Edinburgh he was being interviewed on the TV. The ‘71 non-Tory MPs’ that Scotland sends to Westminster are vital to protecting Britain against ‘Tory economic policy’, he said. In one way at least he’s living in the past. Since 2005, Scotland has returned only 59 MPs.