George Galloway convinced me that Britain was worth keeping. Can he convince his fellow Scots?
Since Hamilton was released on Disney+, a new intake of fans have been treated to its perfectly pitched characterisations of the USA’s Founding Fathers. Among the most beloved is Thomas Jefferson, portrayed as a brash, flash Southerner who nonchalantly bursts into the second half with the rakish number “What’d I Miss?” (hint: the War of Independence). A backing chorus harmonises dreamily: “Thomas Jefferson’s coming ho-o-ome.” Later, when President Washington reveals his shock retirement to Hamilton, the refrain is retrieved; this time: “George Washington’s going ho-o-ome.”
The last week or so, Unionists might have been singing the same about another George, their very own brash, flash, southern Scot, the indefatigable Mr Galloway. Galloway’s bitter opposition to the Scottish National Party long predates his very public fallout with the Labour Party, and is second only to his animosity for the ghostly ‘Mrs T’. He’s had other fish to fry, of course, but when a troupe of bigoted “ghouls” decided to picket the border between — as Galloway sees it — the part of the country he was born in and the part he lives in, they crossed a Rubicon. He’s had enough: George Galloway’s coming home, and he’s launched the Alliance 4 Unity, a cross-party electoral alliance aimed at denying the Nats their seemingly inevitable 2021 Holyrood majority.
Cue the predictable avalanche of abusive tweets from cybernats (though the sleazy strategy to flood Galloway’s inbox with pornography was a new low; more on that later.) But one flavour of the Disloyal Opposition’s response might seem to ring true: that putting Unionist faith in Galloway is evidence of ‘desperation’.
Well, frankly we are desperate. For those who believe in the United Kingdom, the polls have never been scarier. The Union’s saviour of 2017 has abandoned her post, and the baton has singularly slipped through the hexagenerian fingers of her successor, while the Scottish Labour leader too stands in a long tradition of failing to show up. All the while, Teflon Nicola continues her masterful impression of somebody who is vaguely competent, with sensational results.
There is also the persona of Galloway himself: is there something faintly tragic about loyal Tories throwing their lot in with, as Brian Monteith put it, “the man who stood for everything they loved to hate”? The cleverer cybernats are already trying to drive wedges between Galloway’s red republicanism and his newfound true-blue backers.
But just because you’re desperate doesn’t mean you aren’t onto something. Since Galloway left Scotland for Bethnal Green in 2005, we’ve all been made very aware of the man’s flaws: the ego, the romanticising of anti-Western dictators, the penchant for cigars (actually, he quit those five years ago). Any Nat attempts to put Conservatives off supporting him based on his support for a united Ireland or the Castros are very likely backing a horse that has already bolted, and will be further undermined by the fact that the alliance is just that, an alliance. And an alliance for unity, at that.
This, if anything, may explain the cybernat tactics of diving kamikaze-like into the gutter. How do you attack a man about whom there is so much to attack? Where do you start? And how do you deal with the fact that the most unlikely voters back him regardless? We all know Twitter isn’t real life, but the @Alliance4Unity account garnering over 9,000 followers in a week suggests upward momentum in the phoney war stages, and so far the most striking response we’ve seen is a really terrible photoshop implying bestiality. Say it quietly, but we could be seeing the early symptoms of a ‘Galloway Derangement Syndrome’.
Much remains to be asked about how and whether the Alliance strategy will work. Galloway is to head up the Alliance’s regional list candidates, standing solely on the platform of unity and beating nationalism. There are no signs of the traditional pro-Union parties taking up his offer of a stand-down deal, so it looks as though the Alliance may have to pursue a Brexit Party-style insurgency, draining support from both Labour and Tory as Galloway’s erstwhile Leaver comrade Nigel Farage did so awesomely last year. Galloway is an old-hand at pulling off political upsets, but this would be something of a higher order.
Here Galloway’s character would worry a long-time observer like me; while so far, his combative style has rightly won plaudits from Unionists starved of rhetorical meat, it is a tricky act to keep on the right side of aggression, and thus risk accusations of bullying. For lots of us, his relentless volley of syllables against dopey popstars in the Big Brother House was more troubling than an overcommitted cat impression. Americans partly voted for the Alpha-male Trump because they could see him as Commander-in-Chief, facing down Putin and Pooh. Thanks to NATO and Faslane, Scots are relatively sheltered from geopolitics, which is why their allegedly beloved First Minister is more-or-less a tribute act to Angela Merkel. Unionists may be ready for some streetfighting politics, but is the average Scot?
Still, there is no doubt that the Unionist side sorely needed an injection of passion, and Galloway’s arrival is more like a passion transplant. It could also prove that in a populist era where exciting firebrands tend to trump exasperated experts, he has the right blend of soaring rhetorical showmanship with a command of basic economic logic. This could be the perfect antidote to a movement headed up by a dull schoolmarmish manager whose main claim to viability is an oil market of which the bottom long ago dropped out. In other words, this could be the answer to Unionist fears that stemming the indy tide can’t be done in the same functional terms as in 2014; as instructive and valuable as Kevin Hague’s graphs on fiscal transfers are, they aren’t enough to swing results. Man does not live by bread alone.
There would certainly be a sense of full circle if it were the notorious Mr Galloway that stopped Scottish nationalism in its tracks. The Canadian symbologist Jonathan Pageau talks of inversion and the role of the archetypal ‘Fool’ in modern politics. Under normal circumstances, the Fool’s job is ‘flip’ things the wrong way round to entertain us or make us think. But because we live in an age that does appear to be the wrong way up (think gameshow hosts becoming POTUS), the Fool’s role becomes to re-invert, turning us the right way up again. Pageau’s main case study is Kanye West, now intensified by his presidential bid. But he could as well look East as South, at the original celebrity-politician taking on the prototypical populist phenomenon of the post-indyref SNP.
Seeing the SNP routed would be delightful in its own right. But I would have my own circular satisfaction in seeing it executed by Galloway. As a teenager and avid fanboy, it was George that convinced me of the socialist case for keeping Britain. While my politics have moved a long way since, and Cuba, Venezuela and Palestine have flickered out of my political imagination, Britain remains, burning brighter than ever. So listening to Galloway’s exceptional oratorical skill, when deployed in service of this “small piece of rock with three hundred years of common history”, doesn’t just stoke my patriotism: it’s a nostalgia trip.
What remains to be seen is if it will have the desired impact. It prevailed at the Battle of Bethnal Green, and stunned at the Battle of Bradford West. But victory at the Battle of Britain would be an achievement of truly historic proportions.