George, where did it all go wrong?

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Last Thursday saw the Prime Minister of England – sorry, Prime Minister of Britain – Boris Johnson arrive in Scotland for a one-day charm offensive.  This was intended to remind Scottish people of how lucky they were to be part of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘mighty’ union as Johnson grandly put it, and dissuade them of any mad notions of voting for Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, 54% of them are now minded to do.  Determined to press the flesh with the maximum number of Scottish people during his visit, Johnson flew into the bustling Caledonian metropolises of the Orkney Islands and RAF Lossiemouth.  A little unfortunately, the Orcadian mainland is home to a small settlement called Twatt, which led to some unkind quips being made on social media about there already being ‘one Twatt in the Orkneys’.  It was also slightly unwise for the PM to parley with some local fishermen and pose for photographers holding a pair of clawed, antennae-ed crustaceans, as social media was soon heaving with comments about how he ‘had crabs’.

 

But Johnson isn’t the only British political chancer to have foisted himself upon Scotland recently, proclaiming the message that red, white and blue unionism is good while Saltire-waving indie is bad.  For July 2020 has seen the return to Scottish soil of one George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway.  Or to give him the title that immediately appears when you type his name into Google, ‘George Galloway cat.’

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time I considered Galloway one of the good guys.  Well, one of the goodish guys at least.  This was while he served as Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, later Glasgow Kelvin, from 1987 to 2005.  For many years Labour MPs formed the bulk of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons, but apart from a few high-fliers like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson, destined for cabinet jobs under Tony Blair, they were an uninspiring lot – a big, grey Scottish-accented blob whose only function was to shamble through the voting lobbies at their party’s bidding.  They were nicknamed the ‘low-flying Jimmies’, though to my mind they were a living, if barely sentient, definition of the Scots word ‘numpties’.

 

However, the Scottish Labour MPs contained a small but interesting awkward squad.  The squad included the admirably his-own-man Tam Dalyell; and the very leftward Ron Brown (who shocked the British establishment by heading off to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and then on his return warning that it probably wasn’t a good idea for the West to fund the Mujahideen, later to morph into the Taliban); and the trio of Dick Douglas, John McAllion and Dennis Canavan, all of whom would later end up estranged from the Labour Party and end up supporting the cause of Scottish independence.  Plus, of course, the ultra-awkward George Galloway.

 

Galloway was too left-wing for traditional mainstream Labourites’ liking, which was fine by me.  I also approved of his constitutional stance.  Though he didn’t go as far as espousing independence for Scotland, he advocated a large measure of home-rule for the country within the framework of the UK.  And when John Major’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1992 and dashed hopes of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up for at least another half-decade, and a campaign movement called Scotland United was formed to maintain pressure for the creation of such a parliament, I wasn’t surprised when Galloway became one of the movement’s leading lights.

 

From twitter.com/thoughtland

 

To keep the issue in the public consciousness, Scotland United held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I participated in a couple of these, though I can’t remember Galloway addressing the crowds.  I do remember, however, one Saturday marching down to Leith Links in Edinburgh where, after speeches, we were treated to a gig by the Scotland United-supporting pop / soul band Deacon Blue.  At one point, singer Ricky Ross pointed out the nearby premises of Leith’s Conservative and Unionist Association and started singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which contains the pertinent lyrics, “…how does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home / A complete unknown…?”  The memory makes me nostalgic.  Trying to establish a Scottish parliament by having Deacon Blue sing Bob Dylan at the Tories.  Those were the days.

 

Still, it was already clear that Galloway had a dodgy side.  From 1983 to 1987 he’d served as general secretary of the British charity War on Want and stories of his antics during a conference in Greece – Galloway confessed to getting to know some local ladies ‘carnally’ – led to embarrassing tabloid coverage.  I seem to remember one newspaper reporting his attempts to justify his behaviour with the headline I BONKED FOR BRITAIN.  This presumably helped give rise to Galloway’s nickname ‘Gorgeous’.  Meanwhile, his simultaneously smooth and self-righteous manner caused a lot of people I knew, even ones who shared his politics, to profess that they hated his guts.

 

During the next two decades, following Galloway’s exploits was a seesawing experience.  He’d do something crap, then redeem himself by doing something impressive, then blow his restored credibility by doing something crap again.  At the crap end was his grovelling to the Iraq despot Saddam Hussein, which in 1994 saw him utter the famous line, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”  Later, Galloway claimed, not very convincingly, that he’d aimed this line at the long-suffering Iraqi people rather than at Saddam himself.

 

But he deserved kudos for his opposition to George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair’s misguided, mendacious and ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He denounced Bush as a terrorist, got himself expelled from the Labour Party, sued and won against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed Iraqi agents had secretly paid him with cash from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and then squared up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in 2005.  The senate confrontation was probably his finest hour.  He gave those senators a mauling.  “…(I)n everything I said about Iraq I turned out to be right,” he declared, “and you turned out to be wrong.  And 100,000 have paid with their lives, 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies.”

 

Though he’d  torched his bridges with the Labour Party, Galloway managed for a time to defy Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political lives… end in failure.’  He formed the Respect Party, stood for election in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and won it from Labour.  He stood down as MP there following a schism in the Respect Party, but in a 2012 by-election pulled off a similar stunt by winning Bradford West from Labour.  Both constituencies had sizable Muslim communities and there were copious allegations about Galloway dishing religious-related dirt on his opponents – that in Bethnal Green he’d played up the fact that the Labour incumbent, Oona King, had a Jewish mother; that in Bradford West he’d raised the issue of the Labour Party’s Muslim candidate drinking alcohol; and that in the run-up to the 2015 general election he’d accused his Labour challenger, another Muslim, Naz Shah, of supporting Israel and lying about an arranged marriage.  But Shah had the last laugh because she won Bradford West back for Labour.

 

© Channel 4

 

True to form, Galloway’s 2005 triumph in Bethnal Green was soon negated by his idiotic decision to take part in the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.  This resulted in such colossally cringy moments as George, no longer so gorgeous, dancing in a leotard beside the late Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive, or pretending to be a cat and licking cream off the lap of actress Rula Lenska.  Hence the word ‘cat’ popping up beside his name on Google searches.

 

More seriously, Galloway secured a job as a host on the Iran-government-funded Press TV in 2008 and that same year earned himself the ire of gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for claiming that a gay man executed in Iran was punished for ‘sex crimes’ rather than for being gay.  He landed himself in more hot water in 2012 when he defended Julian Assange against rape charges by describing having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman (after consensual sex with her when she was awake), which Assange was accused of doing, as ‘bad sexual etiquette’ but ‘not rape’.

 

Galloway’s support for Assange was evidence that, as the 2010s progressed, he was increasingly happy to clamber onto any bandwagon that he thought would boost his profile.  So he campaigned vociferously for a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – ‘just say naw’.  Mind you, he was scathing of his ex-comrades in the Labour Party who’d joined forces with the Conservatives in the anti-independence Better Together movement.  “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative,” he told Prospect magazine, “please shoot me.”  Remember those words.  Prior to the referendum, I watched him in a televised debate and discovered that, like a cartoon character, he’d now acquired a costume, a rarely-off-his-head fedora, and a catchphrase: “That is nonsense on stilts!”

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter/@VirendraSharma

 

Perhaps upset that his contribution to saving the United Kingdom didn’t result in ennoblement by a grateful David Cameron – he could have been Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts – George then threw his lot in with the Brexiteers and campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum on that matter.  This spawned some nauseating photographs of him, a supposed socialist, posing with Nigel Farage, ex-City of London spiv, immigration dog-whistler and Donald Trump’s biggest British fanboy.  That said, pictures of Galloway embracing the extreme right-wing nutjob Steve Bannon at a debate in Kazakhstan in 2019 were even more mind-melting.

 

The increasing number of causes that Galloway hitched himself to seemed in inverse proportion to the number of votes being cast for him in elections.  A 2011 attempt to get into the Scottish parliament saw him win a less-than-awesome 3.3% of the vote in Glasgow.  His performance in the 2016 London Mayoral contest was even worse (1.4%) and attempts to run in English constituencies in the 2017 and 2019 general elections had equally dire results.

 

Now George has a new wheeze, which is to run in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections as head of something called Alliance for Unity, of which he says: “We have only one goal – to get the SNP out.”  To this end, Galloway has declared himself willing to work with even the Conservatives.  Yes, this is the man who a half-dozen years ago invited folk to shoot him if they ever saw him do that.

 

He intends to stand in the south of Scotland, a rural, down-to-earth area where I can’t see many people falling for his self-serving, narcissistic brand of bullshit.  Maybe he figures he stands a chance because he shares a name with one of the regions there, Dumfries and Galloway.  And who does he really expect to vote for him?  Not Scottish independence supporters, obviously.  Labour supporters will hardly vote for someone so willing to climb into bed with the Tories.  And the hard-line loyalists / British nationalists who increasingly form the main support for the Scottish Conservative Party these days will hardly be enamoured with someone who’s said of Northern Ireland: “There is no Northern Ireland.  It is six counties in the north of Ireland.  It should have never been in the British state in the first place.”  Nor will his urging of Arabs to kill British troops in Iraq in 2003, one of the final straws that got him chucked out of Labour, win him their admiration either.

 

George Galloway may still look, talk and act like the cat that’s got the cream.  But I suspect he’s now used up the last of his nine lives.

 

© The Sunday Mail / From pressreader.com

Oliver twit

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

I’m fairly left-wing in my outlook.  But I’m not a fan of recent strategies like cancel culture and no-platforming as ways of dealing with people who express reactionary and offensive opinions.

 

Partly this is because proponents of cancelling and de-platforming people seem to assume that humanity can be divided neatly into good and bad, with no possibility of various shades of goodness and badness existing in between.  I doubt, though, if any human being can honestly claim that they’ve never said or done anything that, later on, they regretted.  A case in point is novelist Damian Barr, who got Lady Emma Nicholson removed from the vice-presidency of the Booker Prize due to her hostility towards gay rights, which saw her voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords in 2013.  Embarrassingly, it then emerged that Barr himself was guilty of tweeting nasty stuff about transsexuals.

 

Also, I was in favour of letting people with obnoxious opinions get up in public and spout those opinions because of the ‘give-them-enough-rope-and-they’ll-hang-themselves’ argument.  Allow them a platform, allow them to speak, and people will realise what offensive tossers they are.  However, in today’s media landscape, where Internet algorithms mean folk can spend their entire lives living in online echo-chambers where they hear nothing but their own political viewpoints and have their own prejudices reinforced, I’m less sure of that argument’s validity.

 

And the dichotomies of cancel culture and no-platforming seemingly leave no room for the potential of human beings to change and improve.  I’m from Northern Ireland and the fact that Northern Ireland in 2020 is a better (if still considerably less than perfect) place than it was in, say, 1973 is in part because during the peace process people had to make a leap of faith and accept that characters who’d been banged up in prison for doing some very bad stuff had mended their ways and were worth trusting and negotiating with.   I’m thinking of the likes of David Ervine, who was put in the Maze Prison for being in possession of explosives and intent to endanger life but who, when he died in 2007, was hailed by Tony Blair as “a persistent and intelligent persuader for cross-community partnership.”

 

That said, however, I’m not feeling much sympathy for historian David Starkey, who in a recent interview on Reasoned UK, a platform set up by right-wing foetus Daren Grimes, came out with such jaw-droppers as “Slavery was not genocide.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?  You know, an awful lot of them survived.”  During the ensuing furore, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College and Canterbury Christ Church University cut their ties with Starkey and HarperCollins announced that it wouldn’t publish him anymore.  Even if Starkey hadn’t expressed himself in such racist terms, I still wouldn’t allow the guy any academic responsibilities because his reasoning suggests that his head’s full of mince.  I mean, there are quite a few Jews around these days too.  But that doesn’t mean they weren’t subjected to genocide in the past, does it?

 

It only surprises me that it took Starkey’s horribleness so long to spark an outcry like this, for he’s been farting out offensive and upsetting comments for years on the BBC and in various newspapers.  In 2011, for instance, he blamed the London riots on whites who had “become black.  A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture…”  In 2009, he dismissed Ireland, Scotland and Wales as ‘feeble little countries’ and in 2015 likened the Scottish National Party to the Nazis and the St Andrew’s Cross to the swastika.

 

From twitter.com/davidstarkeyCBE 

 

But it isn’t Starkey whom I want to grump about here.  It’s another famous tele-historian, Scotsman Neil Oliver (although technically he’s an archaeologist).  He’s best-known for his appearances from 2006 to 2010 in the BBC show Coast, in which he tramped around the shores of Britain talking about its natural and human history whilst looking shaggy-haired and hippy-esque, windswept and Celtic, rather like Bono during his Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum period.  Oliver has suffered collateral damage from the Starkey debacle.  He was criticised for tweeting Darren Grimes shortly before the catastrophic interview and saying of Starkey, “Tell him I love him, by all means.”  Since then, Oliver has nailed his colours to the mast by retweeting sentiments from right-wing reprobates like Douglas Murray, Laurence Fox and Toby Young, who’s opined that Britain is now in the throes of a ‘Maoist Cultural Revolution’.  (That’s right, Tobe.  Britain, with its Maoist prime minister, Boris Johnson; with its Maoist media publications, like the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Spectator; and with its Maoist media moguls, like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere.)

 

Then the other day, Oliver announced that in September this year he would step down from the presidency of the National Trust for Scotland.  The NTS was clearly uncomfortable with Oliver’s association with Starkey and had just issued a statement refuting accusations that their president supported Starkey’s views.  For the record, I should say that while Oliver’s politics frequently get up my nose, I don’t believe he’s a racist like Starkey.

 

I find it peculiar that the NTS made Oliver its president to begin with because it must have alienated a lot of people whom the organisation depends on for support.  A staunch red-white-and-blue British unionist down to the split ends of his flowing tresses, Oliver has never made any bones about his disdain for the Scottish National Party – although unlike his pal Starkey, I don’t think he’s ever likened them to Nazis.  In 2017, the year he became NTS president and while he was filming a programme in New Zealand, he wrote a piece for the Sunday Times with the title, “In New Zealand, I’ve put enough distance between me and the SNP.”  Which was not the most logical thing to say, given that New Zealand is a successful independent country of five million people, which is exactly what the SNP aspire to for Scotland.  In early 2020, he wrote in the Times of Scotland’s SNP government: “It’s embarrassing.  I think of other nations looking at us and our shenanigans, and shudder with humiliation by association.”  This vitriol seems at odds with what Oliver sanctimoniously tweeted two months earlier, on the eve of the December 2019 British general election: “Whatever happens tomorrow, we will still be the same individuals with the same neighbours, living the same lives.  Nothing will have changed, not one jot.  Peace be with you.”

 

Presumably, a good number of people in Scotland who are sufficiently interested in Scottish culture and history to pay for NTS membership and donate to it are also people who believe that Scotland should be an independent country again.  So by appointing President Oliver, the NTS inadvertently flipped those people the middle finger.  If I’m giving money to a cause that suddenly adopts as its figurehead someone who’s very publicly slagged off people like me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to withdraw my patronage.

 

From twitter.com/N T S

 

Meanwhile, soon after British protests in support of the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement resulted in the statue of notorious Bristol slaver Edward Colston being pulled down and chucked into nearby Bristol Harbour,  Oliver appeared on television and contributed his tuppence worth.  For a worrying moment, I actually found myself in agreement with the guy.  As he pointed out: “I’m using a smartphone to take part in this conversation…  And I know that the cobalt that’s within the battery of my phone and in my laptop computer has almost certainly been mined by a child slave in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  And the people who were taking those videos, are taking videos of statues being destroyed…  the people holding those phones were probably wearing clothes that had been made in sweatshops in other parts of the world by other living slaves.  If this is to be a coming-to-terms with slavery, then I would deal with the plight of slaves who are alive today…”

 

But just before I punched my fist in the air and shouted, “Yeah, right on, Neil!  Smash this globalist capitalist system now!” the hairy bugger went and ruined it.  He veered off into a reactionary rant about the protests possibly being “an attempt by anarchists and communists to eat into the built fabric of Britain and thereby to bring down British society.”

 

In other words, Oliver’s argument about modern-day child slaves was just a piece of whataboutery.  He was angry that Colston’s statue got toppled and thrown into the drink, even though Colston’s involvement with notorious slave-traders the Royal African Company saw an estimated 84,000 Africans shipped as slaves across the Atlantic, with 19,000 of them dying en route. So to obfuscate the issue of Colston’s villainy, he introduced the child-slaves of the DRC into the conversation.  Yes, child-slaves in 2020!  What about them?

 

Actually, Neil, what about them?  Is Boris Johnson and the rest of the gang in charge of the British establishment, which you seem so enamoured with, going to take action against international child slavery anytime soon?  I doubt it.

 

The irony is that the assault on Colston’s statue, which so offended Oliver, a supposed historian, has actually made a lot of people more aware of history.  That includes me.  For example, soon afterwards, someone on social media suggested removing the statue of Henry Dundas from its column in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, on account of Dundas being the man who delayed the abolition of Britain’s slave trade by a decade-and-a-half.  They also asked whose statue might be put on the column as a replacement.  The suggestions on the following thread included names such as Bessie Watson, Jane Haining and Eliza Wigham – whom I had to look up on Wikipedia, because until that point I didn’t know anything about them.  (All women, incidentally.  Women don’t get much mention in traditional accounts of Scottish history.)

 

But my concept of history seems to be anathema to Neil Oliver and his mate David Starkey, who see it as a fixed and immutable thing, like lava that spewed out of the great volcano of events and immediately solidified and hardened – becoming a giant monument to be stared at and admired and worshipped, with no room for re-interpretation or re-evaluation.  That’s what history is, end of.

 

This strikes me as an ignorant viewpoint because if we accept history as set-in-stone, we ignore not just possibilities for subjective revision but possibilities for objective revision of it too because, with progress, our science and scholarship for examining the past becomes better.  If we didn’t revise our understanding of history from time to time, we’d still be stuck with silly and antiquated notions like, for instance, the Scots being descendants of Scota, daughter of Moses’s Pharaoh, and Geythelos, King of Greece.

 

But the likes of Oliver and Starkey have no interest in history as a fluid, changing, reviewable thing.  No, they’re the contented curators of the dusty, fusty and preserved-in-aspic Museum, or Mausoleum, of Establishment British history.  Then again, I suppose it pays their wages.

 

From commons.wikipedia.org / © William Avery