George Galloway is a giant figure in British politics yet at just five foot and six inches he has difficulties towering over even me, someone famed for their short stature.
The first thing that I notice apart from his height is that Galloway is nothing like his television persona. I’ve always thought of him as a thoroughly unlikeable man, someone I couldn’t imagine having a pleasant conversation with. But his warmth won me over, he seemed genuinely pleased to communicate with the gay community and asked if I’d mind conducting the interview in his sparse basement as it would be a little quieter than his manically busy constituency office.
Through the constant noise of ringing telephones and a growing queue of people waiting to see their constituency MP, Galloway led us down the stairs sipping a mug of black coffee from his “Respect” emblazoned mug.
Relishing an opportunity to, in his mind, set the record straight over allegations that his Respect party lacks substance on the issue of gay rights he launches into a characteristically eloquent argument: “One of the great canards spread by our political adversaries and buttressed by people who should know better like Peter Tatchell is that we are somehow unsound on this issue. I have I think an absolutely impeccable record in parliament on this subject.
“In fact, I was one of the very few people who voted against lowering the age of consent to 18. I voted for 16 and against 18 on the principle that I wasn’t going to vote for someone’s right to sit in the middle of the bus. Now that was the demand of gay activists at the time but very few people heeded it.”
With a smirk he added: “The lesbian and gay centre in Glasgow that was not actually in my own constituency none the less, asked me to perform
the official opening of it in recognition of that fact.”
I ask how Galloway can say that his record is impeccable on the issue of gay rights considering he didn’t vote at all for the introduction of civil partnerships: “I was probably somewhere else, there was never any doubt about the passage of the civil partnerships, I wholly support it. In fact, I’m going to one in the next couple of weeks.” Uncharacteristically, he seems happy to accept that on gay rights at least, New Labour have achieved something remarkable:
“I’ve always had on my staff many gay people. I have many gay friends, and many activists in Respect are gay. So there is no sense in which we are wanting in this debate.
“Our policy could not be clearer as an organisation, we are against all forms of discrimination, we are for self determination. These are the phrases that are used.”
Respect was criticised at the last election by its own trade unionist members for failing to include a manifesto commitment for equality and gay rights. “A manifesto commitment is important if you are going to be forming a government. I was running as a parliamentary candidate here and made clear, because I was pressed by New Labour, hypocritically, to do so, made clear my own views.”
“Our founding document, our constitution, expresses these concepts, so I don’t think that we’re not in anyway short of anyone else, and the difference is that we really mean it, some of the others don’t.”
As someone who claims to be inherently connected to the struggle for gay equality, does Galloway insist that candidates for his Respect party adhere to the same views? “No, because we’re a coalition, and we don’t bind a Muslim candidate in Yorkshire to the explicitly socialist parts of our programme.”
“Many of them are small business people and wouldn’t describe themselves as socialists and are not bound to accept it. And the same goes for other issues including tax and these issues. But the leading figures in Respect, you know who they are, their views are well known. Mine are well known.”
How then does Galloway approach these two disparate groups, the socialists and the Muslims? “Like porcupines making love, with great difficulty, carefully. And the task of keeping a coalition of disparate forces together on these issues is difficult, it’s not easy, we’re trying and we’re doing our best.
“I’ve been explicit as I can on these issues, and I’m arguably the leading figure in Respect, not its leader, we don’t have leader but the leading member in it in terms of being well known and I’m being explicit. It will be read by every one.”
He has publicly claimed that his Respect party has a realistic chance of taking over the London Borough of Tower Hamlets at this year’s local elections. Aside from the Palestinian flag flying over the town hall (a stated policy together with the twinning with the town of Jenin), what would the impact of a primarily Muslim council be on the gay community? Would gay venues come under fire from their licensing authorities? “I don’t know, I’m not an expert in licensing. There are
a lot of gay venues in the area, if you’re asking: ‘will we turn the clock back on them?’, I can say: ‘absolutely not’.”
Whilst Galloway has been quick to criticise the west for their treatment of Muslims, he has been suspiciously quiet in terms of the Middle East’s appalling record on gay rights. Only Turkey and Israel allow gay men and women to practise their way of life openly, whilst Israel is one of only a handful of countries in the world to allow gay couples to enter into civil unions. What does Mr Galloway believe can be done from Britain to make this situation better?
“Intervention by Britain in the Middle East has a bad name unsurprisingly. In the context of military intervention that you have to see it. If you go around the world invading other peoples’ countries, slaughtering their compatriots, and occupying them and then arming and training the puppets that you install in your wake, you’re not in a position to make interventions of other kinds in terms of their attitude to issues like this.”
“There are a very large number of homosexuals in the Arab world, the official rhetoric is often well short of the actual practical situation is on the ground.”
In a passionate defence of the Saddam regime’s position of gay rights he said: We took a prominent Canadian politician, Sven Robinson [to Iraq], who made a speech which opposed sanctions, opposed the upcoming war, and then launched an attack on Iraq for a perceived witch-hunt against gays and many people said to us afterwards, if you had only have spoken to us about that you would have found out in practice that’s not true at all.”
Wrestling uneasily with a set of rosary beads he added: “Obviously homosexuality is disapproved of in the Koran as its disapproved of in the bible and I don’t know, but I presume also in the Torah. Therefore the official position of Islamic states is always going to be well short of what you want.”
“I don’t think you should be surprised that in explicitly Islamic countries, the Koranic injunctions against homosexuality are the official policies of the state, none the less, many homosexuals continue to practice their way of life, mostly without intervention from the state.”
On the controversial subject of the Iranian teenagers who were publicly hanged for homosexuality, Mr Galloway questions whether the media reports were true: “Were they publicly hanged for being homosexuals? I don’t know if they did or did not. If they raped a young boy, then the penalty in Iran is to be hanged. But whether they raped the boy or not, I denounce the hanging of them.”
On the problems facing gay Muslims in Britain, Galloway was remarkably ill-informed. He appeared to be unaware of the existence of gay groups within the Muslim community: “Are there any?” He asks, when I tell him there are a handful, he adds: “they haven’t contacted me but I’d be delighted to work with them.”
In terms of gay Muslims seeking asylum from regimes where their way of life is persecuted, Galloway looks uneasy but says that the situation is: “deplorable, this is one easy thing that the British government can do without intervening in other people’s counties, you could intervene in the lives of citizens of other countries who fled here.” Has he heard or dealt with any constituents with these problems? “No but if I did, I would support it.”
What does the future hold for the member for Bethnal Green and Bow? “I don’t know, only God knows that, I’ll continue for as long as I can to fight for the policies I agree with.” Questioned on whether he’d fight for a seat in the European Parliament he was unclear: “Maybe it’s a possibility. When I said on Big Brother that it was my last election, I meant parliamentary.
“I might stand. I wanted to be elected there last time, we almost did and we were only 20 weeks old as a party, so I might. But more likely, I’ll try to spend my time as I do now on platforms large and small, to argue for the politics I believe in.”
As the interview drew to a close, I added a question, that I thought would be easy for him to cope with. Sensing my ease, he rushed to answer before I could finish. “Do you consider being gay to be a lifestyle choice?” I ask. Whilst I paused for breath, he gushed: “Yes”. When I finished my sentence with: “or is it something you’re born with?”, his smirk disappeared and he rummaged frantically with his rosary beads: “I’m not qualified or required to deal with that but I believe in equality of all people and I’m against discrimination, against anyone on grounds that they either are born with or have chosen, their right to have self determination over their own lives, that’s a principle for us.”
As I packed up and my colleague took some snaps, he asked: “what was the right answer for that question?” I replied that for me, it certainly wasn’t a choice, it was no different to being born of one race or another. He seemed concerned that he’d make a slight fax pas, but was able to manage a slight, knowing, smirk as he posed for a photograph.
Walking back from his Shoreditch office to our editorial centre just around the corner, I reflect on our short meeting. I can’t shake off the fact that George Galloway charmed me. I don’t like his politics, I felt saddened when he won his seat from Oona King, the Blair babe in a dirty election campaign. However, having met the man, he seemed different, he seemed human, genuinely concerned with the plight of all people, not just his supporters.
He also seemed slightly nervous, which is in many ways understandable. After all, he is managing a balancing act between his socialist roots and his Islamic supporters. For some of the latter, this interview may be a stark reminder that he is not really one of them.
You may reprint extracts from this interview if you credit “PinkNews.co.uk” as the source.
George Galloway with PinkNews.co.uk editor Benjamin Cohen