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What should historians make of George Galloway’s election?

What should historians make of George Galloways election
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Written by Freddie Hyde

George Galloway’s success in the recent Rochdale by-election is not a threatening aberration but consistent with British electoral history

Is there something rotten in the state of Rochdale? You could be forgiven for thinking so. Last week, the left-wing firebrand George Galloway was elected MP for Rochdale in a particularly unsavoury by-election. Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, won a majority of 6,000 votes after the Labour Party suspended its candidate, Azhar Ali, for peddling conspiracy theories about Israel. Israel, Ali believed, was guilty of “allowing” the 7 October Hamas massacre to take place in order that it would have an excuse for its invasion of Gaza. Galloway then used his victory speech to describe the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as “two cheeks off the same backside” and later compared Israeli’s actions in Gaza to ‘the crimes of the Holocaust’. The day ended with Galloway being branded a “climate change denier” by a heckler and doused in orange confetti by a Just Stop Oil activist and – of all things – a Church of England vicar.

Reactions to Galloway’s election were swift and apocalyptic. Rishi Sunak described the campaign as one of the “most divisive” in recent times. Sir Keir Starmer issued a blanket apology to Rochdale for the fiasco and promised to field a “unifier” in the next general election.The Telegraph feared that the rise of Galloway’s “horrific new party”, while Nigel Farage predicted that religious sectarianism is “here to stay”. Thus much for the commentariat. To politicians and to many journalists, the significance of the Rochdale by-election lies in its novelty: a new and nasty form of politics, in which the virtue of an MPs is defined by their response to a foreign war, has taken root in Rochdale. Yet politics, as the saying goes, is history happening now and politicians have remarkably short memories. To a historian, on the other hand, what is remarkable about the Rochdale by-election is how in keeping with British history the election is.

Firstly, Rochdale has always been a radical town. Ever since the remote, scarcely populated Lancashire valley was transformed into a seething mill town – of the kind that Dickens caricatured in Hard Times – its elections have been colourful. One might even wonder whether the Victorians put something in the waters of the River Roch and the Pennine reservoirs which fed the cotton mills. In the general election of 1835, when it was the duty of any self-respecting parliamentary candidate to lay on free beer for the townsfolk, so disorderly was the election in Rochdale that six men died of alcohol poisoning and every single stomach pump in the town had to be employed to clear up the mess. In 1857, the Liberal candidate, Edward Miall, lost his seat after the men and women of Rochdale threatened to boycott any pub landlord who voted for him. ‘“The Non-Electors”, one contemporary remarked, “will read, mark and learn who have supported their claim to the suffrage, and who have not recognised that right, and will not fail to bring all legitimate influences to bear on the latter.’

John Vincent, the foremost political historian of the period, put it rather more succinctly: in Rochdale, “drink was by far the most active of the interests in 1857”. Miall, like Azhar Ali, also had a particularly advanced view of British foreign policy. Shortly before the election, he branded the Prime Minister, Palmerston, a “disgrace of the British flag” and a would-be “dictator of this country in foreign affairs” for having started a war in China “without first asking the consent of the people”. In 1859 meanwhile, the voters of Rochdale elected Richard Cobden, the great free trade radical for whom Britain’s empire served no other purpose than the sustenance of “the costly appendages of aristocratic life” and who had confessed himself “amazed and disgusted” at the patriotic celebration that greeted Britain’s victory in the Crimean War. Not only was Cobden elected unopposed; he was elected while on a speaking tour in America and did not set one foot in Britain – let alone in Rochdale – during the campaign.

Perhaps this is all a coincidence. But what is also true – and what should also serve to reassure those who fear the consequences of Galloway’s election – is that Galloway, an anti-Zionist who has attributed the Russian invasion of Ukraine to Western misinformation, is but the latest in a long line of firebrand politicians whose worldview is defined by a conspiratorial assessment of British foreign policy.

He is, in fact, nothing less than the twenty-first century incarnation of another radical Scot: the Victorian orator, populist, and, in the words of his admiring biographer, “knight-errant of justice and liberty”, David Urquhart. If you squint, there is even a passing resemblance between the two men.

The parallels between the political careers of David Urquhart and George Galloway are uncanny. Urquhart began his career as an official at the British embassy in Constantinople, where his admiration for Turkey and his detestation of Russia were so acute that he was recalled by Palmerston, the then Foreign Secretary, whom Urquhart promptly attacked as the agent of a Russian conspiracy. In the 1840s and 1850s, Urquhart began a campaign for popular scrutiny of British foreign policy and organised ‘Committees for the Study of Diplomatic Documents’ across the country. In Glasgow, Manchester, Hull, Birmingham, Newcastle, and Sheffield, Urquhart’s ‘Foreign Affairs Committees’ took up his cause with the aid of their sympathetic newspapers.

The Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, who presided over Britain’s entry into the Crimean War, was accused of being in “secret, dishonest and clandestine communication” with St. Petersburg and – along with the editor of The Times – in the pay of the Russian Tsar. Aberdeen’s secret goal was apparently to become the ‘viceroy’ of a Russian-controlled Britain. In the summer of 1855, Urquhart ended a rally in Birmingham by calling for the impeachment of the Cabinet. G. S. Phillips and Isaac Ironside, the editors of the Sheffield Free Press, claimed that they had “ten distinct charges of high treason against Palmerston” and that Robert Lowe, another cabinet minister, was “a conscious Russian agent”. In 1856, ‘Urquhartite’ committees in Bradford and Bristol took up the cause of the dethroned King of Oude, Wajid Ali Shah, whose Indian state, they argued, had been annexed by Britain in a deliberate act of diplomatic intrigue. In 1860, Urquhart’s committee in Newcastle began an investigation of a British agent in Afghanistan, Sir Alexander Burnes, whom they accused of falsifying diplomatic papers. This despite Burnes having been dead for nineteen years.

In the end, very little came of David Urquhart’s efforts and his campaign evaporated as quickly as it began. In 1857, a journalist paid a visit to the Sheffield Foreign Affairs Committee. The Secretary, it transpired, was a tender lad of eighteen and the central office contained ‘Mr. Ironside by the fire and nobody with him’. Despite the fury of his oratory, Urquhart had built his house upon the sand.

This, then, is what those who fear the consequences of George Galloway’s election to Parliament should bear in mind. His message may be alarming, but as strange as it may seem, the election of eccentrics like Galloway is par for the course in British politics. If Victorian Britain could weather the storm of Rochdale’s elections and the conspiracy theories of David Urquhart, Britain today can handle his twenty-first century doppelganger.

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Freddie Hyde

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