THE CENTRE-PIECE of the SNP manifesto released on 15 April turned out not to be a road-map for the next independence referendum; that is being discreetly mothballed. Instead, it was the offer of free stuff in return for votes. Bikes for every child, along with laptops. ‘I’ll hazard you’ll never see the bikes. They are a mirage,’ George Galloway riposted in an online election address, the only kind permitted in the limited campaigning that is a feature of this ghostly Covid-era election. He is the only major personality in the non-separatist camp who is displaying self-confidence about Britain and its future and arguing with clarity and fervour that the key to material well-being for Scotland’s five million people lies in remaining part of Britain.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the other pro-Union parties shrink from taking on Sturgeon and her party with equivalent passion and vigour. While Galloway lambasts Sturgeon for turning ‘grievance and grudge into a national religion’, Labour’s Anas Sarwar promises his own freebies to a working-class base that for a decade has preferred to drink the nationalist Kool-aid. He trundles out a Labourite neo-nationalism laced with imprecations against the Tories. His campaign against the ruling party, which has a terrible record in the way it has treated lower-income Scots, is so insipid and mealy-mouthed that sometimes you start to wonder if the SNP dark arts department has some compromising material on him that they are threatening to release if he ever dares to raise his game.
Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats is almost as disappointing. His main campaign line just after Sturgeon released her cynical, bribe-strewn manifesto was that his Conservative counterpart Douglas Ross was ‘a dark force’ in politics. This damning verdict arose because much earlier in his career Ross had dared to speak out about the unacceptable behaviour of some members of the gypsy travelling community. Farmers have long complained about rural crime and defiance of property rights but what is essentially an urban-minded political class basically think that sheep stealing (in some places now a highly sophisticated operation) is something that has to be endured rather than energetically combated.
Rather than closing ranks and blasting Sturgeon for an approach to financial probity hardly better than that of the Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff, who died last week in a US jail, the opposition leaders endlessly trade insults. Of late the Tories have been alarmed by the impact Galloway’s All4Unity party is having on its supporters. His party set out to maximise the pro-UK vote. It has urged tactical voting in the constituency seats where many SNP MSPs were elected due to a split opposition. It has put up 56 candidates in the regional list seats because of the strong belief the A4U has a better chance than the others in attracting voters put off by the legacy Unionist parties.
I’ve been a backer of A4U since it was launched last July. I am well aware of Galloway’s stormy political past. His past views on Ireland or position on Israel are not ones I embrace. Neither is the Russia Today channel where for some years he has broadcast increasingly popular talk shows one I would normally rush to watch. But his MOATS show offers a more realistic view of the world with a far broader list of guests than any current affairs shows on BBC.
Galloway is a curious political amalgam. He is a natural disrupter as shown when he took on the Blair government over prosecuting a war in Iraq that had disastrous outcomes for that country, the Middle East and the wider world. His tactics and statements were ill-advised at times but he was willing to stand up and be counted and had the support of many in the Labour Party, including MPs with whom he stayed in touch after being expelled in 2003. He worked with these figures in the Just Say Naw campaign which he launched in 2013 after David Cameron had gifted the then Scottish First Minster Alex Salmond a referendum on independence very much on nationalist terms. He made an eloquent and impassioned case for Britain in halls across Scotland. His drive and oratory were undoubtedly assets for what was often a colouress and overly-cautious pro-UK campaign.
He also displayed a knack of being able to work effectively with others across the political spectrum. People who would be opponents in normal times found him to be a thoughtful, self-deprecating and collegiate figure behind the fiery exterior. His cooperative instincts have enabled him to construct a party with others on the left, centre and right of politics, as well as folk of no fixed views, who share his commitment to waging a more effective defence of Scotland in Britain than the status quo has managed. His political partnership with Jamie Blackett, the man to whom he transferred the leadership of the A4U six months ago, is telling. As a British soldier, Blackett fought armed Irish Republicans in Ireland, he has made a career in farming and business, and his views are well to the right of the socialist from Dundee. Such alliances are unusual in Scottish, never mind, British politics. It shows how Galloway has matured into the closest approximation to a statesman that Scotland has right now.
He makes regular appeals to British patriotism (couched in anti-fascist or redistributive terms) on Russia TV of the kind which have not been heard on the BBC perhaps for decades. One of A4U’s aims is to ensure that a Scottish administration sticks to governing Scotland and always remembers that foreign affairs are a reserved matter for the British government in London.
Galloway is an instinctive anti-authoritarian, perhaps crude and splenetic in the past in the manner that he expresses his views. He has now been far longer in the business of resisting the ruling nationalists than any other well-known figure in British politics.
He is committed to strong British institutions that can restore the coherence and unity of the country after Blair’s determination to shackle Britain’s future to the whims of the market. He was an implacable foe not just of his militarism in the Middle East but his determination to reduce British society to being a mere adjunct of the global market. He is now a leading opponent of a self-styled progressive oligarchy that wishes to confine choice and debate to a narrow set of forces and issues that don’t threaten powerful vested interests at home and abroad.
Scotland under Sturgeon is a boutique version of the Blair/Cameron/George Osborne model of a tightly-managed society whose rulers throw baubles at the local population but dutifully promote the causes of the global corporate elite. Its press and broadcasters are careful to embrace the race-conscious, pro-EU, Green-fixated concerns which are now Sturgeon’s own political trademark. There is no love lost between Galloway and what has become a politically captive broadcasting media. He has proven adept at allying his own prowess as a communicator to the latest techniques of the information age, to carve out a worldwide media profile. His twice-weekly talk shows achieve an audience thousands of times greater than the BBC politics flagshow ‘Scotland Nine’ . On the day that A4U released a manifesto replete with initiatives for how to end abuses in Scottish governance and bring it closer to the people, its host Martin Geissler preferred to confront Galloway about episodes in the distant past in order to characterise him as an adventurer.
A media that was still dedicated to making politics interesting for an audience which has largely deserted it, could instead have focused on Galloway’s political journey. His views on the Middle East and Ireland have evolved. He now sees an Ireland trapped as he put it in ’99 years of civil-war politics’ as a warning to Britain. He lives in the Scottish Borders with Gayatri Pertiwi, an Indonesian anthropologist whom he married in 2013 and with whom he has had three children.
This personal back story would have been absorbing for Scottish viewers who have become used to being ruled by childless politicians. It remains to be seen how much of a foothold Alliance4Unity acquires in Scottish politics after 6 May. But there is a concentrated effort by a tight-knit media and political establishment to allow the party led by Jamie Blackett and Galloway as little oxygen as possible. To their external shame, several journalists who claim to be foes of the SNP, have used conservative publications to systematically rubbish A4U in political and personal terms. It makes no difference that its politicians are currently the only ones prepared to confront Sturgeon as she chips away at the foundations of democracy and ever more blatantly interferes in the schooling of Scotland’s children.
It will be a grim verdict on the state of democracy in Britain if Scotland ceases to be a free country with an eclectic range of media forces having been prominent in hastening the passage to full-blown autocracy.
Galloway is a vigorous 66. By now he has no need of the MSP’s salary. He can do without the intimidation and aggression which forced him to move his family out of their home at short notice after death threats from a nationalist on 19 March. It is an appalling commentary on a decaying democracy and a failed experiment in devolution that a disreputable elite restricts his party’s participation in electoral debates in what could be a fateful election.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Scotland Now: A Warning to the World, 2016. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54