Things can only get bitter "¦

Mark Fischer spoke to George Galloway, the controversial Glasgow MP and key figure in the anti-war movement

From your position in the Labour Party, how do you assess the political significance of the giant February 15 anti-war demonstration? It has a far bigger significance than simply the issue of Iraq. The people are on the march against a number of political questions. In Macmillan's words - it's not just this damn thing, it's one damn thing after another. There is a critical mass of dissatisfaction with the Blair regime developing. This is reflected in The Guardian's tracker pole of February 18. This shows he has lost something like 60-plus approval points. This is the lowest he has been since the height of the petrol crisis, which at that time was his lowest ebb. So it's not just about the Iraq issue - there are other questions. First, the democratic outrage that currently passes for our parliament is making people's blood boil. We can vote repeatedly about whether it is right to kill foxes from horseback, but we are not allowed a single vote on whether we kill thousands of Iraqis and plunge that country and the region into further chaos. This would be laughable if it wasn't so obscene. The parliament, the Labour Party and the TUC have been - as Peter Mandelson would put it - 'sequenced'. They have been shepherded through each stage of this process, with the door closing behind them after each sequence has been successfully completed. This has reached such a stage that the only place where people can make their views known is in the streets. Even if the war goes ahead and is satisfactorily completed from the point of view of imperialism, the issue of Britain's deeply flawed democracy will linger on like a bad smell. This must be addressed. We effectively have a monarchy and an undemocratic republic in the same country. We have a monarchy we didn't elect and a president we didn't elect. The president chooses a rubber-stamp cabinet that meets for 40 minutes every week and is told what the top few ministers have decided. It has no opportunity - or apparent wish - to change that state of affairs. The fact is that the parliamentary Labour Party is so 'on message' that I am the only member of PLP that does not have a pager to police my activities and statements! Of course, I don't mean that I am the only one who is an independently minded person, but there are not many of us. That 'pager' fact struck me as telling. We have a parliament that is not only led like sheep from pen to pen, but even appears to quite like that state of affairs. So this glaring democratic deficit is a key issue. A broader issue is the gap between people's expectations of a Labour government and the reality of it in power. People had high hopes - I did not personally, having had the chance to study the beast of New Labour at close quarters before the election. But I think millions did expect things in the country to change. But New Labour expended a lot of energy dampening expectations "¦ Yes, but they haven't even lived up to the dampened expectations they allowed people to have. Nothing very much has changed, apart from getting worse in some respects. The gap between rich and poor is greater than when Charles Dickens was chronicling society. The position of trade unions in our society is every bit as alienated as it was under the Thatcher and Major governments. The treatment of the firefighters, for example, was right out of the Thatcher textbook. The heavy artillery that was brought to bear on the FBU - a moderate trade union, which had not had a strike for 25 years, which had been a loyal pillar of the Labour Party through dark days and kept what might be a 'militarised' labour force unionised and affiliated to the Labour Party - was outrageous. It has had opprobrium heaped upon it in language that would have made even Thatcher blush. The rhetoric around issues of race, immigration and asylum has sickened natural Labour supporters. It flows from a flawed strategy that suggests that if you throw the ravenous beast of racism some bones it will be sated. In truth, it merely becomes hungrier. The failure to fight for even a 'social democratic' position on race, immigration and asylum and the shredding of civil liberties that we fought for and defended over several centuries has demoralised a lot of people. In short, the Blair government has long ago lost its lustre and it will never be that glad, confident morning again. That's before we even start to talk about a government that is now about to fight its fifth war in six years. Clearly, 'Things can only get bitter' might have been a better slogan for this government. The discontent, anger and alienation are now reaching the kind of critical mass we saw on February 15. We too place emphasis on the democratic and constitutional questions that are quite starkly posed by the rush to war. It's as if Oliver Cromwell had never existed! We literally have a medieval power being exercised - the absolute power of kings, which we presumed had been broken in the 1600s! The royal prerogative is the marching order under which these 42,000 British soldiers will be sent off to kill and some to die. That the royal prerogative has been passed to the prime minister to exercise as an individual is scant comfort in a parliament as obsequious and spineless as this one. I regularly see a shiver scuttling through the benches of the House of Commons looking for a spine to run up. In a parliament like that, a prime minister exercising a royal prerogative on the greatest issue of all - war and peace - demonstrates just how 'unmodern' this government is. Blair used to prattle about us being a 'young country', about representing the forces of 'modernity' - but then he is exercising a medieval power to take the country to war for the fifth time in six years. How 'modern' is that? Moving on, there have been developments in the trade unions and a debate about funding Labour. Amongst sections of the movement, there is growing talk of the need for a new political representation for the working class - a new workers' party. On the other hand, those like Tony Benn suggest that Blair and his coterie represent a thin layer in Labour - they will be swept away by events or decamp voluntarily, leaving the Labour Party to be 'reclaimed' for its original role. What do you think? I think there is an element of wishful thinking in Tony's analysis of this. I am not so sure how thin this layer is, I'm not so sure what is left to break through this thin layer, I am not so sure the shrivelled and blockaded democratic space within the party will enable people to 'reclaim' the Labour Party, as people like Alan Simpson talk about. Of course, I hope there is. I will help in any way I can to achieve that, but I don't think we can put all our eggs in that basket. I stated at the February 15 rally that if - as Michael Foot said - Tony Blair breaks the Labour Party over this issue, then some of us will be ready to rebuild a Labour Party from the wreckage. That Labour Party would be attached to real Labour values, with a democratic constitution and seeking to give representation to the huge sections of British political opinion that are currently virtually unrepresented in parliament - the left, the unions, the young, the whole areas of British society that together constitute a majority. What I precisely mean by that I am not yet ready to detail, because this scenario can be avoided. I hope the war can be avoided, I hope the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Once I used the phrase that the Labour Party had been hijacked and that the passengers had to take back control of the plane. But that may have first been an underestimation of how deeply the poison had seeped into the body. Second, I may have overestimated the ability of the passengers, who have been bound and gagged. I hope these passengers don't have to opt for bailing out of the plane, but I do feel the plane is heading for disaster. It is important we have in mind different plans to rescue Labour from the wreckage. The Labour Party's original constitution before the bans and proscriptions on socialist and Marxist organisations is a good model. Clause four was a good banner. Labour does stand for the hope of the world. I do believe that socialism or barbarism is the polarity that exists in the world - and that includes the barbarity not only of war, but also of poverty, injustice and the other grotesque inequalities that exist on our planet. Socialism or barbarism is the choice - it was when Rosa Luxemburg said it. It is now. So the vision of socialism is not dead: it's very much alive and kicking. The need for the working class to lead the struggle for socialism has not changed. And the need for a mass party of the working class has not gone away. Whether New Labour can be decapitated and a renaissance of this existing Labour Party can be achieved is doubtful, I believe. The answer will probably present itself to us soon - we are talking weeks, not months. But what about the lessons of debacles like Scargill's Socialist Labour Party? Isn't there a danger of substituting the correct conclusions that you might reach about Blair and the party for what is still in the heads of the majority of members and the mass working class electoral base Labour still retains? The working class has been tremendously loyal to the Labour Party in the 20th century - if we are to build anything new that is viable, surely we have to bear this in mind also and not turn our back on the fight in the party? Yes, that's the reason why people like myself took the choice as a young person to be active in Labour, even though our politics were to the left of the organisation even as it existed then. The Scargill Labour Party was a historical mistake. It was at the wrong time, led by the wrong man, on the wrong political basis. I say this with all due respect to his role as a workers' leader. Arthur Scargill was not Lenin, however, and Britain in 1994 was not Petrograd in 1917. Arthur seemed to get both those things wrong. A repetition of the fiasco of the SLP would be worse than useless. I am not really talking about a schism. I am talking about a situation where the Labour Party has been broken by an act of treachery of the dimensions of MacDonald. A breakaway by a few Labour MPs would be a mistake. But in the next few weeks we could see the Labour PM commit an international crime of the gravest dimensions, one which so divides the party and the movement and the country that the loyalty you talk about is itself destroyed - this may already be happening, as evidenced by the election of the 'awkward squad' in the trade unions and the debate in the unions about the political ballot. So there is clearly a vacuum. We have to formulate a position that can avoid the problems of a Scargill-type breakaway, yet can somehow position itself to inherit the strength of the Labour Party historically. Clearly, a vital element of that must be the trade union question. We do live in a different era. We have to properly calibrate the new political forces that are emerging. Of the two million on the streets of London and Glasgow over the weekend, only a very small section of them were organically connected to the labour movement as we knew it. We have to have a project that engages them. Having marched two million to the top of the hill, we can't allow them to drift away. Even marching them back down again is not necessarily a bad thing - organised retreats and redeployments are part of our arsenal as well. To allow them to drift away in disillusionment would be a very serious mistake, however. We must come up with a formula that keeps that army together and gives them a positive perspective. A party perspective? An organisation that can take on the system that engenders war, not just fighting against this war? Our movement has to raise itself to the challenge of concretising and leading those two million people on the streets. The core of our movement - which I would estimate to be several hundred thousand strong - has many clear differences from, say, the CND movement of the 1980s. Then we had a peace movement, but we didn't have an anti-imperialist movement. In other words, we didn't have a movement that understood not only that war was bad but also what the reasons for war were. I think we do now. I am astounded by - and also intensely proud of - the people of this country. When I read their letters, or I hear them on radio phone-in programmes, the political clarity of these people strikes me. Despite the fog of propaganda that the government has produced around this question, their political clear-sightedness is incredible. This gives me great hope and is a huge difference from the past. This is not just a peace movement. It is a peace and justice movement. A movement that understands that without justice there is no peace. It understands that September 11 - atrocious as it was - arose out of imperialist crimes, not out of the blue sky. This is a new and tremendously exciting development. Something new is on the march in Britain - how that is to be articulated politically and organisationally is yet to be determined. OK, we agree there is a vacuum that needs to be filled politically. You don't want to talk about the details yet, but do you think the conclusions you have reached are finding a resonance in other sections of the movement? I am not openly proselytising for them at the moment, so I would be lying if I said there was a real resonance for them at present. But I am in discussion with a number of key individuals - people who independently have been thinking along the same lines. Nature abhors a vacuum and there is no vacuum more abhorrent than a political vacuum. Lastly, what about the charges against you that your political positions are dictated by your softness towards the Ba'athist regime, that you are a stooge of Saddam? No one could credibly make that charge - I have been in anti-imperialist politics all my life. In relation to Iraq in particular, it is a particular ludicrous charge. I was a founder member of Cardri (the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq) in the 1970s. I was on the demonstrations outside the Iraqi embassy in London when British ministers were on the inside selling the Saddam regime guns and gas, so it's not a credible allegation. I had visited all the Arab countries by 1991, apart from Iraq. I had not visited Iraq because I would have been arrested on arrival. I was a known opponent of the regime. I still have serious differences with the Iraqi government; but I have bigger differences with imperialism. I oppose the reduction of 23 million Iraqis to one demonised individual, so that any crime against the 23 million is justified, as it apparently harms this one person. I oppose the 41-country assault on Iraq and the siege that has killed one million children in that country. The character of the Iraqi regime was yesterday's issue and it will be tomorrow's issue. Today's issue is the barbaric attack on Iraq by imperialism and its Zionist auxiliary. Therefore, it seems to me that anyone who claims to think in Marxist terms must be able to see this. The only Iraqis who support the drowning of their compatriots in blood so they can come to power on the back of an American tank are those that are paid to say so. Paid very lavishly, as a matter of fact. The plans of imperialism for the country have nothing to do with democracy. The actual stooges in the region - like the PUK and the KDP and elements of the Iraqi National Congress - are beginning to see this and to protest. The very last thing that imperialism wants to see in the Arab world is democracy. What sort of government would the people of Egypt elect if they could? Or the people of Saudi Arabia? How could that be in the interests of imperialism? Therefore, the idea that they will set up a democracy in Iraq while throttling democracy everywhere else in the region is laughable.