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What George Galloway understands that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband don’t

2012 April 4
by Paul Vallely

The interplay between religion and politics is far from straightforward, as any thoughtful reading of Christ’s Passion will disclose. The minds of the high priests in Jerusalem must have been tormented by a fear of the consequences of the revolution that Jesus posed in political, social and religious terms. He was a threat to so much: the good opinion of the Romans, the authority of the religious establishment, the internal smooth-running of the social order and the emotional and psychological peace of the community.

Disentangling the one from the other is no easy task, particularly when the pressures of the present rob us of the easy perspective of the past. A week after the by-election in Bradford West a lot of half-baked thoughts have been aired about significance of George Galloway’s victory which saw a massive swing of 36 per cent from Labour but also one of 23 per cent from the Conservatives.

The Westminster village was wrong-footed and vented its irritation with its own lack of foresight by Twittering all their old grievances about Mr Galloway: the chequered history of the charities he has run; his praise in 1994 for the “courage, strength and indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein ; quoting things he said in 2005 about Syria’s President Assad as if he said them yesterday; and recalling how in 2006 he posed as a cat Celebrity Big Brother to lap milk from the hands of the glamorous actress Rula Lenska.

Mr Galloway’s ability to disturb is double-edged. In 2005 he put in an extraordinarily formidable performance, turning the tables on a US Senate sub-committee in which he lambasted America for its invasion of Iraq. So his success in Bradford should have surprised no-one.

Yet when commentators reflected on it they by and large accepted his own analysis that Labour had paid the price for neglecting its own core support-base, leaving large numbers of people alienated and disconnected from main-party politics. The people of Bradford had spoken for people in inner cities everywhere, he said.

That is probably wrong.  Bradford West is atypical. The Muslim community make up about 38 per cent of the electorate. And though the Galloway campaign made attacked public spending cuts, extortionate tuition fees, a privatised NHS, diminishing pensions and mass unemployment he also struck some low blows, hinting that his main rival, Labour’s Imran Hussain, was a drinker where he was teetotal.

“I’m a better Pakistani than he will ever be,” Mr Galloway said at a rally before the vote. “God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not. And a man that’s never out of the pub shouldn’t be going around telling people you should vote for him because he’s a Muslim…” He omitted to mention that when it came to private morality his own track record was not so strong on adultery as on alcohol. But he understood that a religious prism on foreign policy was the big issue. More concerned with Palestine than pasties, he called for troops out of Afghanistan now, warned against bombing Iran and understood that the Iraq war remains unforgotten and unforgiven.

How much so was clear last week when the Army’s Diversity Action Recruitment Team launched a drive in Slough, where almost 50 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities. “I wouldn’t join the Army, no way,” said one lad. “I do consider myself to be British but I am a Muslim first and foremost”.

This is part of a significant switch in British politics. At the 1951 general election 97 per cent of voters voted either Tory or Labour.  Over the years combined support for the two main parties has fallen steadily to just 65 per cent at the last election. Minority candidates – from the Green party, Ukip, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists have made big inroads. There are more than a dozen constituencies in the UK in which ethnic minority communities could now determine a similar result for George Galloway’s Respect party.

The interlocking of social, political and religious identities is a complex business. But George Galloway has, in his controversial way, shown a greater understanding of it than have the three main party leaders. Perhaps Holy Week is not a bad time for them to give the matter some thought.

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