Principled, bold, determined and proud of it, George Galloway has participated in many fiery debates with a number of influential speakers and thinkers. The announcement that the former Labour and Respect MP was coming to speak at the University of York provoked plenty of heated discussion among students. Inviting him to speak on the campus was an “abuse” of freedom of speech, wrote Hannah Ridley for The Tab. Students filing into the Physics block on the evening of the 6th to attend YorkX’s third outing, “Outspoken: Akul Pankhania in conversation with George Galloway,” were expecting a memorable night.
Strangely, YorkX began the interview with a focus on someone other than Galloway. The audience viewed a short video on the late sporting hero Mohammed Ali, followed by Galloway giving a brief talk about the importance of Ali’s inspiring legacy. Swiftly, the host, Akul Pankhania, moved on to discuss politics. Galloway intends to speak to young people and persuade them to consider the values he believes to be true and beneficial. He believes he is a conviction politician, a rarity today; years ago, he said, when politicians rose to speak, you couldn’t predict what they would say and they would not be reading a draft handed to them by their leader. Galloway believes that the rarity of his species is a result of the end of the Cold War, back when Soviet Russia and Russian Communism collapsed. Capitalism, the victor, was seen to be the only way forward. Conformity replaced conviction and dissenters were seen as madmen. All is not lost, however; Galloway hopes that the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn signals a change of mood.
As soon as Galloway was in his stride, YorkX took a backseat. Pankhania read robotically from some pieces of paper, seeming uncomfortable and awkward. The society’s co-founder Ilyas Ibrahim’s mind was elsewhere: he clearly was unfamiliar with the light switches and the computer, demonstrated by the evening beginning in darkness and the opening video playing six times simultaneously. Photographers walked in front of the speaker and host, obscuring the view.
To everyone coming to the event, a fight seemed inevitable. Outside the lecture hall, early arrivals discussed the rumour of an organised protest from the Jewish Society. No protest occurred, but its possibility spoke volumes for the tension in the audience. The very first questioner accused Galloway of anti-Semitism and a hatred of Jews; his fury was shared by others. Galloway accused them of libel and dishonest slander. Throughout, no one from YorkX lifted a finger. Evidently, YorkX wanted controversy. They wanted the audience to leave talking about what they had seen. Ticket holders had received a message from Pankhania prior to the evening:
I want you to be as opinionated and vocal as possible. I want there to be a very lively discussion and debate, so don’t be scared to challenge Mr. Galloway or to come back on and challenge each other in the audience.
Pankhania mimicked this attitude in person. He took to Twitter to read comments from York students, including a Tweet from one user that said: “When did ‘outspoken’ become a synonym for ‘odious, misogynistic racist’, I wonder?” Galloway was not pleased. “That’s defamatory, by the way,” he said, “you really shouldn’t be reading that out.” Pankhania either didn’t understand or didn’t care. Butting in now and then when his guest answered further questions, Pankhania pressed Galloway for comments on Israel, the European Union and more.
“If I had a button here and you could press it,” Pankhania asked Galloway, “and you could wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, er, or you could turn back the clock and Israel would never be there, and, er, the Jewish people would still be in Europe, Palestine would still be Palestine, would you press it?” A wave of repulsion swept across the audience. Galloway looked perplexed. He declined to answer the hypothetical question, preferring us to deal with the situation we have in reality.
It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for a majority of the audience. Galloway was under fire and his critics would not take his insistence that he was no racist as truthful. Galloway’s inspiring arguments in favour of equality, social justice, feminism and religious tolerance were swallowed up by tit-for-tat exchanges. But as the audience reeled, Pankhania and Ibrahim looked delighted. Whenever Galloway boomed and thundered or the audience threw accusations of misogyny and racism, Ibrahim turned gleefully to look at his committee, beckoning the photographers to get more photographs.
Tonight’s disaster scenario became reality. George Galloway has lived a long life, visiting many places and campaigning with many unique and influential people; but instead we watched an ageing radical be publicly accused of all manner of bigotry by attendees. Galloway conducted himself first with dignity but when backed into a corner by fierce critics in the audience, he became defensive and dismissive, firing the same kind of dismal accusations at his critics. YorkX’s reluctance to moderate the debate and attempts to create division made the second half of the event a long, trivial spat. The evening went from theatre to trial to gladiator match.
As the audience shuffled out, Pankhania was asked whether, if he were given a button that could wipe Israel off the map in an instant, he would press it. “I don’t see why that’s important,” he shrugged. “No one cares what I think.” This abdication of concern might just summarise the evening.