Skip to main content

Tommy Sheridan’s trial verdict marks the end of a long era in Scottish politics. Despite the hegemony which Scottish Labour seemed to enjoy, the socialist left, in its different guises, was an ever present irritation. Throughout the 30s and 40s the ILP provided Labour with a popular and electoral challenge. From 1935 to 1951, Willie Gallagher held West Fife for the Communist Party. In the 1960s and 1970s the Communist Party held municipal seats in Clydebank and Fife but also had councillors in Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Inverness and even Arbroath. 
The Scottish Socialist Party’s emergence partly filled the vacuum created by the Communist Party ‘s effective disappearance. It articulated a popular disdain for Labour’s integration into a system it had once despised. Ironically, the Scottish parliament’s model of proportional representation favoured the SSP with a far greater level of electoral success, six MSPs in 2003, than any of its left-wing predecessors.
The SSP briefly united an unlikely coalition of disparate Troskyists, feminists, ecologists and frustrated left-wingers. Its great asset was Sheridan. He had played a leading part in the struggle against the poll tax which Labour councils had happily collected. He seemed to articulate an intelligent radicalism and an almost unique lack of the careerism which characterised swathes of Labour’s parliamentary and council candidates.
My personal connection with Sheridan was brief but the common aspect to our backgrounds was our membership, at different times (mine from 1968 until 1976, his in the 80s and 90s) of the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group within the Labour Party. Former members of the Militant represented the largest single grouping within the SSP.
The murky events, the lies and the egotism uncovered in Sheridan’s trial may have played a role in his and the SSP’s downfall but the source of that implosion is the political culture from which Sheridan and much of the SSP sprang.
Marxism, a product of the European enlightenment, sought to apply reason to economics, history and politics. It stated that man and society were capable of being rationally understood and was part of the intellectual tradition which created the social sciences. It assumed that society, over the longer term, was governed by progressive principles and that history both released the productive capacities of human kind and brought closer the final demise of the exploitation of man by man. This is not, of course, to say that Marx got it right. His was a philosophy capable of underpinning progressive politics. It was also capable of sustaining closed, totalitarian mind-sets.
A philosophical system which analysed society ‘scientifically’, but in the hands of those bereft of scientific method and scepticism, is dangerous. Militant produced regular Perspectives documents, ‘analysing’ likely political developments. Its great boast to its members was that ‘Marxism is the science of perspectives’, effectively an assertion that with a scientific application of Marxist theory, the future could be foretold. Time and time again these Perspectives documents, with their predictions of capitalist crisis, working-class radicalisation, splits in the Labour Party, were proved entirely hollow. The irony of a ‘scientific’ method which was closed to empirical proof of its own failings was entirely lost on the comrades.
If a perverted sense of somehow having a unique ‘truth’ characterises many naïve Marxists, that naïveté was transformed in the 20th century into a fearful weapon for tyranny. Marx saw the working class as the great force for social liberation. Leninism developed the elitist concept of the Bolshevik party as the essential leadership of the working class for the seizure of state power. The party, membership of which is by invitation not application, is not merely essential to overthrow capitalism, but is the repository of Marxist truth without which the working class is helpless.
What finally shaped the Leninist (and Trotskyist) parties were the conditions in which they emerged.  In the case of the Bolsheviks, they were under constant threat from the Tsarist secret police, even in exile; in the case of the Trostskyists, the even greater threat was from the Stalinist secret police. The results were organisations characterised by fear, secrecy, intense internal security and paranoia. Militant, with nothing to fear but expulsion from the Labour Party, but similarly paranoid, adopted internal pseudonyms, insisted that the organisation did not exist and manufactured a complex web of financial structures to protect the organisation’s assets. In such an organisation fantasists could see themselves as part of a righteous and persecuted minority. It also created organisations where lying was the norm and ‘the truth’ a bourgeois affectation.
The Militant excused its dishonesty about its own existence, by stating that it told the truth to the working class but lied to the enemies of the working class within the Labour bureaucracy.  Such a world attracted, as well as a few starry-eyed idealists, the sad, the mad and megalomaniacs yearning for the martyr’s crown. It created a group which perceived itself as an elect, as the predestined leaders of tomorrow.
The sense of being an elect is not the only parallel between Trotskyism and Calvinism. Those who believe they have a unique grasp of the truth also tend to believe that any who waver from their particular interpretation are back-sliders. Presbyterianism’s tendency to schism and disruption, usually over minor theological points, was to be the pattern for Trotskyism. Disputes over the precise definition of the Soviet Union, over whether or not to enter the mass parties of social democracy, over the revolutionary potential of such non-proletarian groupings as student, gays or ethnic minorities, have divided Trotskyism since the Stalinist ice-pick felled the founder. The SSP was no different. It contained a host of ‘platforms’ or factions, most of which despised each other as much as any external opponent.
Sheridan’s politics rested on a conviction that his faction in the SSP had a unique grasp of political truth but also that any other concept of truth was middle-class affectation. To undermine the credibility of the party, the necessary means of achieving social change, was portrayed as siding with the forces of reaction.
I came across Sheridan only once in his political career. He was pursuing, with Margo MacDonald and John Mulvey, former Labour leader of Lothian Region, a bill to promote universal free school meals. I witnessed a man whose communication skills, including his ability to listen and relate to ordinary people, school pupils, teachers, dinner ladies, put most Scottish politicians to shame. His earlier successful bill on warrant sales had been a strategic master-stroke.
Sheridan knew that he was not only the SSP’s most effective public face, that indeed he was the one politician of stature within a party of bauchles, but that his success was based as much on the public perception of his integrity as on his politics. Sheridan and his faction in the SSP however had a penchant for conspiracy and a contempt for the truth and the SSP as a whole was riven by endemic and virulent factionalism. In the shallow talent-pool of the party he founded, Sheridan’s bravura and confidence loomed large but generated admiration and jealousy in equal measure. He should have known that such an organisation would be entirely unable to resist turning on him with destructive ferocity once his personal weaknesses were exposed.
Perjury undermines any system of justice but Sheridan’s offence was persecuted with a unique relentlessness. The strategy of the police, especially in their pursuit of Gail Sheridan, touched on an unhealthy vendetta. The dropping of several of the counts against Tommy Sheridan as well as the entire charge list levelled against Gail Sheridan, was a measure of the questionable nature of parts of the crown case.
The video evidence in particular was problematic. Despite that, his peers deemed Sheridan a liar, a man of sullied integrity, and he was, after all, on trial for telling lies in court and not for his sexual peccadilloes in Cupid’s. The irony is that Sheridan, a Leninist with contempt for the courts as agencies of the capitalist state, had insisted on pursuing a dishonest case through the very courts he despises, and had thus manufactured his own downfall.
This verdict will be celebrated in the boardrooms of News International as well as in the Labour Party in Scotland and no-one with an interest in democracy, an open society or social justice can welcome smugness in either of these organisations. Yet this destruction of what will likely be the last vestige of Marxist opposition to the Labour Party in Scotland had an inevitability to it.
Sheridan may have been an egotist but that is hardly unique in politics, even left-wing politics, and was not the reason for his downfall. It was the elitism, the moral vacuity and the infantile factionalism of his politics which led him to sue the News of the World, and subsequently destroyed both the SSP and himself and it is precisely that elitism and ethical emptiness which have made the left increasingly impotent for the last half century.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 20 January 2011:

Leave a Reply