Hands off George Galloway!
Whatever you may think of the permatanned MP, the recommendation by a bureaucratic watchdog that he be suspended from parliament is an affront to democracy.
Regular readers will know that spiked doesn’t very much care for George Galloway. We have been critical of his narcissistic brand of anti-war politics (where the i-word he uses most often is not ‘Iraq’ but ‘I’, as in ‘I was right!’) Some contributors to spiked have pointed out that Galloway is an opportunistic politician with Stalinist tendencies: a former Labour MP turned RESPECT MP, Galloway described the fall of the Soviet Union as ‘the worst day of my life’ and notoriously rubbed shoulders with Saddam Hussein and his deputy Tariq Aziz. However, whatever you may think of the permatanned politician, yesterday’s recommendation that he be suspended from parliament is an affront to democracy.
Galloway was first elected as a Labour MP in Glasgow in 1987 and was a backbencher under the Blair government until 2003 when he was expelled from the Labour Party for comments he made about the Iraq war. After serving as an independent MP for Glasgow Kelvin from 2003 to 2005, he joined the new left-wing, anti-war, anti-Blair party RESPECT, and won Bethnal Green and Bow in east London in the General Election in 2005.
Now, an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which began in 2003, has recommended that Galloway be suspended from parliament for 18 days. The suspension will start from 8 October, the day that parliament returns from the summer recess. The disciplinary committee has also demanded that Galloway apologise for damaging the reputation of the Commons. The proposed punishment was the result of Galloway ‘concealing the true source of Iraqi funding’ for his Mariam Appeal charity, and of ‘calling into question’ the integrity of the standards watchdogs (1). Guided by the commissioner’s findings and recommendations, MPs in the House of Commons will vote on Galloway’s suspension.
The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was set up by the Commons in 1995 after recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (2). The commissioner is responsible for giving guidance and training to members of the Commons on matters of conduct, propriety and ethics. In other words, this is a watchdog set up by a committee of politicians to regulate their own and other politicians’ behaviour – and to recommend punishments when they fail to comply with the rules. This is a bureacratic instrument which is used to correct and guide the behaviour of politicians that we, the public, have elected to represent our interests.
The question of whether Galloway should be kicked out of parliament – for 18 days or forever, and whether it’s for his allegedly dodgy Iraqi dealings or his political outlook in general – should surely be up to the electorate rather than a pompous commissioner for standards. The commissioner’s office, founded in the mid-1990s when there began to emerge a widespread distrust of politicians, has a potentially stifling impact on democratic debate and public life. With its constant watching of politicians’ ethical behaviour and financial relations, it encourages MPs always to watch their backs and to be cautious about what they say and do. And anyone who fails to uphold the standards set by the watchdog runs the risk of being publicly reprimanded for daring to call into question the legitimacy of its decrees.
Galloway, of course, is not in a very good position to complain about being silenced by what he clearly views as a sanctimonious committee. He himself is no free speech warrior. In 2004, the brash Scot dealt a blow to press freedom when he sued the Daily Telegraph for libel. The newspaper had suggested that Galloway had received money from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Galloway won, and the idea that public figures should use England’s undemocratic and censorious libel courts to punish their critics became further entrenched in British public life. Just as the overhanging threat of libel can lead to self-censorship within the media, so parliament’s institutionalisation of a standards commissioner can lead to a stifling climate of caution and conformity in politics. This is not exactly a good way to kickstart healthy political debate.
In some ways, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, despite being made up mainly of appointed MPs, has an even more insidious impact on the political rigour and openness of the Commons than does the unelected Second Chamber, the House of Lords. At least there is a clear distinction between the Commons and the Lords, and their differences are frequently thrashed out. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, by contrast, was set up by parliament itself and actually embodies politicians’ distrust of themselves and their own political process. It is a formalisation of politicians’ self-doubt, and thus potentially more interventionist and authoritative in public debate than even the Lords.
Speaking outside the Commons yesterday, Galloway said: ‘I challenged everything that Sir Humphrey and Sir Bufton and Sir Tufton put to me because the points they were putting to me were false. I will not allow people to make false allegations against me…. I am not a punchbag. If you aim low blows at me I will fight back. That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I’ve been suspended for.’ (3)
Galloway may be a bastard, but he is the people of Bethnal Green and Bow’s bastard. It should be up to them to decide whether he deserves to be kicked out of parliament for anything he has said or done. The only thing worse than having a political prima donna like Galloway in parliament is having him thrown out of it by a bunch of watchdogs in suits.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.
Mick Hume argued that politicians like Tessa Jowell shouldn’t be judged by quangos and wondered if anyone would start a liberal backlash over Ken Livingstone’s run-in with the Standards Board. Josie Appleton thought Livingstone’s case brought democracy into disrepute. Brendan O’Neill suggested that we should scrap the Electoral Commission. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
(1) Galloway faces Commons suspension, BBC News, 17 July 2007
(2) See the United Kingdom Parliament website
(3) Galloway: ‘I deserve medal, not ban, for Iraq’, The Times, 17 July 2007
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