Next week, Tommy Sheridan – socialist, former parliamentarian, convicted perjurer – will be released from the minimum security prison in which he has been held for the last 12 months.
His return to civilian life will provoke a range of responses from people across Scotland. Some – those who grew tired of the whole Sheridan saga, with its slow drip-feed of scandal and sordid tabloid expose – will be indifferent. Some will be angry that the one time Solidarity leader served just one year of a three year sentence, despite having been found guilty of repeatedly lying to court.
Others, though, will be delighted. In Glasgow, and particularly in his Pollok stronghold, many people continue to support Sheridan. To them, he’s the man who fought Thatcher’s poll tax and successfully campaigned to ban warrant sales. They continue to insist that the allegations made against him by the press were politically motivated; his downfall the result of a hate campaign waged by conniving ex-colleagues and duplicitous friends.
In a newly published biography, Tommy Sheridan: from hero to zero?, Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire, tries to take stock of the various competing impressions of Sheridan and establish which, if any, holds the most weight. Speaking at a launch event in Edinburgh on Thursday, Gall said the purpose of the book was to explain “how Tommy’s character and persona were absolutely essential to the political project he was involved in. To show that there were threads in his character – of exaggeration, bombast and boldness, defiance and risk-taking – which were (definitive).”
Gall sees Sheridan as perhaps the most significant figure of the Scottish post-war left: “If you survey those who are around and have been around – people like (trade union leaders) Jimmy Reid and Bill Speirs, even George Galloway – there was no-one on a par with Tommy. I say that because not only was he a leader of a mass-movement against the poll tax, but he gained elected office and led a growing political party. He managed to bring credibility and respectability to the project of socialism in Scotland and successfully fuse together issues of reform with those of revolution”.
Sheridan’s success was to a large extent built on the image he had cultivated of himself as a “socialist tribune and man of the people”. His huge public appeal lay in his “boldness, certainty, confidence and charm”. But this persona was less organic than it seemed. Sheridan, says Gall, was a practitioner of the theory of “normalisation”, whereby a politician gradually reveals certain insights into his or her private life in an effort to appear empathetic to the electorate.
The problem, though, was that there was a considerable gulf between the private life Sheridan claimed to live – that of the doting, tee-total father and husband – and the reality of the one he actually lived. When the News of the World began to publish stories in late 2004 alleging he had visited sex clubs in Manchester, that gulf was exposed in spectacular fashion. This forced Sheridan to make a choice. Should he ignore the allegations in the hope the media frenzy fizzles out? Or should he defend his reputation in the courts by suing the paper for libel? In the event, he chose the latter and the rest is all rather tragic and unedifying history.
But what drove to Sheridan to take such an enormous risk? In contrast to the assertions of Sheridan’s former comrades in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Gall argues it was not simply a question of vanity or narcissism: “When I examined how Tommy worked it became very clear that he was a very strategically calculating person”, Gall says. “He would look at an issue and say “If I want to do x I need to do y”. He would look at what his resources were, where his skills lay, and act on that basis. So everything he did in terms of legal action was about political strategy, it wasn’t that he somehow needed the lime light, nor was it to satisfy a rampant ego”.
Sheridan believed himself to be the embodiment of the SSP. He was convinced that its fortunes were tied inextricably to his. If he went down, then the party would go down with him and with it the whole radical left project in Scotland. As awkward as it will be for some to admit, that assumption doesn’t seem as outlandish today as it did then. At the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, the SSP lost every one of its six seats. Subsequent attempts to revive the socialist movement in Scotland – including in the form of Sheridan’s own Solidarity Party – have been desperate failures, while the fallout from the SSP’s split in 2006 continues to fuel vicious factional disputes.
When Sheridan leaves prison next week he will be returning to a political landscape utterly transformed from the one he left in January 2011. The SNP has a majority at Holyrood now; the Labour Party has been reduced to an embittered rump. Sheridan – a long time supporter of independence – has pledged to do his part in the referendum campaign. But is there a place for him? Gall doesn’t think so. “The nationalists will not be happy to see him involved. It would be detrimental to their cause. There’s an analogy here. When George Galloway stood last year in the Scottish elections, he refused any help from Tommy on the grounds that he didn’t want his candidacy to become a referendum on Tommy Sheridan. There will be something of that in the SNP’s thinking”. So, although Sheridan will be a free man again in a few days, it seems his political isolation is going to go on for some time yet.
Tommy Sheridan: from zero to hero? A political biography by Professor Gregor Gall is available for purchase now £25 RRP, published by Welsh Academic Press