The End of the Revolutionary Line: The Demise of Tommy Sheridan
Open Democracy, December 24th 2010
The jury in the Glasgow High Court has found Tommy Sheridan guilty of perjury. His political career and hopes, whatever his rhetoric, lie in ruins, as does the party he helped found – the Scottish Socialist Party – which he briefly made a semi-potent electoral force.
This is the end of a long journey for a revolutionary dream, illusion and fantasy – in which Scotland for a period had the world’s most electorally successful Trotskyite party. It has been three years since Tommy Sheridan was originally charged. It is six years since he decided, against the advice of nearly everyone in the SSP, to take the ‘News of the World’ to court for defamation; a case he famously won but ultimately led to his downfall.
He now awaits sentencing in January for what will be his third stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure, but in very different circumstances. The first two occasions Sheridan spent behind bars contributed to his political aura and legend – first for his opposition to the poll tax in 1992 and the second for his campaigning against nuclear weapons at the Faslane base in the Firth of Clyde in 2003.
Both trials – the ‘News of the World’ defamation trial in 2006 and the Sheridan perjury trial of 2010 – were, irrespective of the details, about one over-riding theme, namely Tommy Sheridan’s character. In this I don’t just mean whether he was telling the truth or not. Instead what I am referring to is the strange combination of forces which came together to make Sheridan who he is: magnetic, powerful, combative, and ultimately self-destructive.
Strangely, given Sheridan’s role in public life for the last twenty years, this mixture is seldom commented on in depth. He was born in Pollok, a deprived council estate in Glasgow in 1964, although when he was small and grew up there life for most working class families would not have been too bad, with full employment and rising wages. He came to politics early on in life, joined the Labour Party and the entrist Trotskyite group Militant Tendency. He was forced out of the Labour Party at the height of the Kinnock expulsion of the Trotskyites in the eighties. He then set up his first political party, Scottish Militant Labour, was elected a councillor to Glasgow council in 1992, which morphed into the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998, winning a seat in the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
Sheridan is a strange mix, at points charming, soft and humorous. He can play to any kind of audience, large or small, rally or a small more formal occasion, and while a master of tub-thumbing barnstorming rhetoric, showed in his championing of the abolition of warrant sales bill, that he could be a master of detail and legal complexities. At times he has not just fed from but needed the adulation of the masses, yet at other times he has seemed to need to stand aloof: ‘a man alone’.
He is also a West of Scotland man, and a certain kind of West of Scotland man, proudly working class, educated and increasingly vain, self-referential and believing his own rhetoric about himself. This is a recognised part of the West of Scotland working class culture: the kind of man who celebrates the role and status they have and what others think of him, and who revels in being seen as a ‘local hero’ and man of history and destiny.
Then there is the combination of his Catholic upbringing and his socialist beliefs: a well-travelled road in these parts of Scotland. There is an even deeper quasi-religious tradition in Scotland which has been shaped by the Bible irrespective of whether the person is Catholic, Calvinist or atheist: from John Wheatley to John Maclean and James Maxton, and more recently Jimmy Reid, George Galloway (his fellow ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ contestant), and even Alex Ferguson. This tradition has given much to Scottish public life, but it has provided a politics and culture of moral absolutism and certainty, a world of black and white simplicities, where there is little truck with shades of grey, doubt or a pluralist, diverse politics.
One should also flag a little note of caution here, in that the men produced within the industrial, claustrophobic culture of the Central Belt were, while ‘men of iron’ and ‘men of steel’, in many cases were also men who could show great insight, empathy, gentleness and compassion. It has often been a complex mix: think of the mercurial mix of people of the stature of Alex Ferguson or Jock Stein.
Sheridan of course isn’t fit to be mentioned in the same sentence as those men, and yet he showed at points great courage, drive and insight. Many years ago I interviewed him for the ‘New Statesman’. It was in Glasgow City Chambers after he had been a councillor for a couple of years. In a part of the interview that the magazine cut for some reason I asked him about how he dealt with the fact that he was sexually attractive to women and to men, and that some of my friends thought he played up to that. It was a deeply revealing moment in the interview, because on every other answer, he had a pre-prepared line, and here he clearly didn’t. There was only silence for what seemed ages, but was in fact only a couple of seconds.
Then he said “Well I would rather be sexually ambiguous than politically ambiguous any day” (1). It was a brilliant answer, and the tragedy is that such quick-witted political and emotional intelligence showed itself to be absent in much of the last decade of the rise and demise of Sheridan.
Despite everything some still stand by Sheridan. There is a West of Scotlandism, an anti-Murdochism, and a basic ‘them’ against ‘us’ residual class feeling. When Sheridan won the 2006 trial Mike Gonzalez in an outlandish piece in ‘International Socialism’ spoke of the verdict being ‘widely celebrated by working people in Scotland and beyond’ (2).
All of those who were in the SSP – whether pro or anti-Sheridan – show the same grasp on reality which comes with the ultra-left terrain. In the BBC Scotland programme aired immediately after the perjury verdict, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’ (3), SSP member after member refers to their party as ‘Scotland’s socialist movement’, or the election of Sheridan in 1999 as the sole election of a socialist to the Parliament; they are oblivious to the numerous socialists in Labour or SNP.
They even refer to their sect – which remained so apart from its brief honeymoon in 2003 when it elected six MSPs before imploding the following year – as a ‘movement’: the rhetoric of delusion.
Alan McCombes, for long the main driver in ideas and policy in the SSP, and former editor of its newspaper, ‘Scottish Socialist Voice’ commented in the film that Sheridan did ‘more damage to the socialist movement than Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher combined.’
This is just absurd. The socialist movement was killed off long before Tommy Sheridan’s legal challenges, and was even in significant crisis before Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch appeared. That crisis is a much longer and deeper one than many are prepared to concede, either in or out the SSP.
‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’ was a tabloidesque account of recent events, with no explanations for the action, lies or motives exposed. Worse, it didn’t offer any insight into this strange cargo cult of a socialist sect which briefly became popular. And it didn’t examine the psyche and what made Sheridan the kind of man and politician he was. And that taps into a wider set of uncomfortable truths.
Tommy Sheridan and the SSP were able to make an impact much larger than their influence or support because their old-time leftist tunes and rhetoric filled a gap which no one else at the time was answering. More than that, their simplistic left clichés and slogans gave a kind of music hall echo to a left message part of Scotland knew or was vaguely familiar with from our history or parents. Strangely this supposedly revolutionary message felt comforting, familiar and cosy; and this shaped for many years until the beginning of this long debacle much of the public coverage of the SSP – which was often rather favourable given it was an ultra-left party committed to the overthrowal of capitalism.
Here is the ultimate rub. Beyond ‘News of the World’, News International and the Murdoch press does this say something rather unnerving? Tommy Sheridan nearly single handedly created the SSP out of the force of his personality, even if there was more to it than that. And he single-handedly destroyed it, even if we can surmise that the contradictions of Trotskyite politics would have led to its downfall.
But Scotland made Tommy Sheridan. He springs from our political and public culture. He was only possible because of it and ultimately because of us. We the people of Scotland made Tommy Sheridan possible; we gave him power, potency and status.
And because of this today, as Tommy Sheridan faces the prospect of a life behind bars, while he seems incapable of self-reflection and self-knowledge, we should not go down the same route. We should instead pause and reflect on our own inadequacies and the flawed tribunes and demagogues who we choose to believe in.
1. Gerry Hassan, ‘Tommy Sheridan and the rise of Scottish Militant Labour’, New Statesman, April 17th 1994.
2. Mike Gonzales, ‘The Split in the Scottish Socialist Party’, International Socialism, No. 112, Autumn 2006.
3. ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’, BBC Scotland, December 23rd 2010.