Yes, the oleaginous, dubious Labour MP for Leicester East and the scruffy-bearded, hard-left, kitten-impersonating, anti-Israel apologist for Islamism will not be many readers’ first choices for “politicians with integrity I most love and respect.”
But the fact remains that this week both Vaz and Galloway played a blinder and reminded us all that, whatever their manifold faults, these men are stellar talents who you’d dearly like to have on side with you in a ruck because they fight hard, they fight dirty and they know how to win.
Keith Vaz distinguished himself as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee into the Rotherham child rape scandal, grilling the disgraced functionaries who helped make it all possible – among them the South Yorkshire police commissioner Shaun Wright and the Rosa-Klebb-like head of Rotherham children’s services Joyce Thacker.
I noticed one or two commenters on Twitter prejudging his performance by making the somewhat racist assumption that, as an Asian, Vaz would strive to whitewash the whole affair. Which just goes to show the problem with this blanket slur cast on the broader ‘Asian’ community by the wanton use of the ‘A’ word in the context of Rotherham et al. Vaz is a Roman Catholic, of Goan heritage, not a Pakistani or Kashmiri Muslim.
He is also – as he demonstrated – a barrister of considerable style, wit and brilliance. In the course of the committee hearing, Vaz expressed his frustration that there seemed to be no way of ousting Wright or Thacker from the well-paid jobs they had done so badly. But at least he managed the next best thing: with feline sarcasm and inquisitorial ruthlessness, he gave all those of us fortunate enough to have caught these gripping proceedings on the BBC’s parliamentary live-feed the exquisite pleasure of watching some deeply unpleasant people writhing like scorpions on a pin and being exposed as palpable, unconscionable liars.
One of my favourite moments involved Meredydd Hughes, the former South Yorkshire Chief Constable – now retired on the inevitable lavish police pension – who, needless to say, couldn’t “recollect” anything about widespread child abuse in the region, despite the fact that most it had occurred under his tenure (2004 to 2011).
Hughes was smooth and unflappable, affecting an eagerness to help in any way he possibly could. As an indication of this, he mentioned how he had come to the hearing straight from a meeting in the Middle East. “Yes, I’m sure we’re all very grateful that you have come to us from the Middle East,” Vaz chided him with silken contempt. Maybe it takes a rogue to nail a rogue. But Vaz, piece of work though he is, left no one in any doubt what an even worse piece of Teflon-coated awfulness Meredydd Hughes is.
George Galloway, meanwhile, has been enjoying a rare stint on the side of the angels by taking a prominent role in the “No” campaign in the Scottish referendum.
Galloway – as a Tory MP confided to me recently – is a formidable adversary. “You need to be very brave, very well prepared to take him on because he’s such an effective debater. I’ve seen US conservative TV shows make this mistake. They have him on thinking: “This guy’s an insane lefty and Islamist apologist and we’re going to make mincemeat of him.” And every time he runs rings around them.”
This is partly because Galloway – like Boris Johnson – is very good at capitalising on the general contempt in which politicians are held by portraying himself as an anti-politician. On Thursday night, he appeared on the No platform in a big BBC referendum debate looking – in his tieless white shirt, dark suit, and raffish black hat – more like a coolly dishevelled author of cultish noir detective fiction than an elected MP. And when he speaks, he shoots from the hip – bypassing his audience’s intellect and going straight for their emotional heart.
When he’s against you, this naked demagoguery is infuriating. But when he’s standing up for a cause you share, it’s a real joy to see those Machiavellian techniques being deployed against your common enemy.
Galloway’s justification for retaining the Union was one, I suspect, that would not even have occurred to most half-way sane people in the No camp. George’s argument was that if our countries were to part, the biggest victim would be socialism. He portrayed the Scottish nationalists campaigning for a “Yes” vote as heartless and selfish: they only cared about welfare recipients in Glasgow – but were happy to cut loose from all those other cities in England (Birmingham, Bradford and so on) where the need for state aid was no less pressing.
A pretty bizarre justification, I think most of us would agree. But the audience – being Scots and, furthermore, comprising largely schoolchildren, their frontal lobes as yet unformed – whooped their applause as though it were the most persuasive argument they’d yet heard.
You could, if you wanted to, get very depressed about this. Has British politics really reached such a low intellectual ebb and has the cause of classical liberalism been so universally discredited that the best argument we can produce for the Union is this: “We promise to give you more free handouts than the opposition will”?
But what I say is: “Whatever works.”
Or – to return to that first analogy – consider one of the lessons of the Second World War. The total number of Germans killed by Stalin’s Soviet forces was in excess of 1.5 million; the number killed by all the other Allies combined was 300,000.
Sometimes you need bad guys to make good things happen. So for the first – and most likely the last – time in my life I say to Keith Vaz and George Galloway: “Gentlemen, I salute you!”