Review of “Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography”, by Gregor Gall.
Sheridan’s gifts as a speaker and his ability to relate socialism to ‘bread and butter’ issues allowed him to popularise the basic ideas of socialism. He did this more successfully than perhaps anyone else in the history of Scottish socialism.
As the figurehead and public face of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), he helped socialists ‘break out of the ghetto’. At its height, the SSP had a membership of thousands and six MSPs in Holyrood.
Central to Sheridan’s ability to popularise socialist ideas and help build the SSP was the ‘persona’ he projected of ordinary-bloke-from-housing-scheme-who-plays-football-and-lives-life-like-you-and-me.
When that ‘persona’ was threatened – by revelations about his visits to a swingers club in Manchester – it had to be defended. Not for personal reasons (or not solely for personal reasons), but for political reasons.
This ‘persona’ was the means whereby Sheridan had popularised socialist ideas and built up the forces of the SSP. Destruction of that ‘persona’ by the media would undermine not just his own credibility, but also the credibility of the socialist message of which he was the ‘carrier’.
Sheridan therefore expected support from the SSP for his decision to sue the “News of the World”, especially as many of the leading figures in the SSP had been his friends and comrades for years. For Sheridan, the notion of friendship embraced the notion of loyalty.
This is Gregor Gall’s explanation of why Sheridan decided in 2004 to sue the “News of the World”, and why he turned on his former comrades with such venomous hostility when they refused to back him.
Even if not 100% convincing, Gall’s argument is certainly credible. But however credible his argument might be, this is not sufficient to save the book – and its author – from more basic criticisms.
The book is very ‘uneven’. In the early chapters Sheridan is frequently quoted at length about the topics under discussion. But there is a lot less of Sheridan’s own words about events from 2004 onwards.
This is not Gall’s fault. It was Sheridan who withdrew co-operation with Gall after 2004 (and even tried to prevent publication of the book). Even so, it makes for a very ‘uneven’ book.
And despite the book’s strap line of “A Political Biography”, large slabs of the latter parts of the book (and the accompanying copious footnotes) focus on the arguments on the Scottish left triggered by Sheridan’s behaviour. Gall has nothing new to say about them.
In fact, despite Gall’s emphasis on his book being an academic work (hence the cover-price of £25), much of what he has written is curiously unchallenging and uncritical.
Sheridan and the pre-SSP Scottish Militant Labour, writes Gall, “navigated and countered … reformism, electoralism and nationalism in building a credible socialist force … and showed that all three could be reconceived as means to propagate socialism.”
Nationalism as a means to propagate socialism? That surely merits further discussion. But not at the hands of Gall, who simply makes the assertion and then moves on.
Gall likewise fails to engage with arguments raised from within the SSP in later years that Sheridan and the SSP did in fact accommodate to reformism, electoralism and nationalism. Gall declares Sheridan and the SSP ‘not guilty’ but fails to properly address the substance of the allegations.
One reason for this, of course, is Gall’s own support for the idea that Scottishness is both a national identity and a (radical) political identity. Mobilising people on the basis of their Scottish identity was therefore not a questionable political endeavour but one of the keys to the success of Sheridan and the SSP.
Gall even defends Sheridan’s statement, “99.9% of business in Scotland is small business. When people say to me ‘Are you business-friendly?’, I say ‘Yes, we are very small-business-friendly.” According to Gall, this was an example of “innovative thinking for a former Trotskyist.”
(By contrast, a much more critical note is struck by Gerry Hassan’s foreword to the book:
“The influence (of Tommy Sheridan and the SSP) was always episodic and their analysis too simplistic and filled with caricature and contradictions.”
“In the latter stages of the SSP, this became a fantastical, prophetic, almost millennial style of politics, of the triumph of will, ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ which did not mature in its analysis of class and politics.”
“Sheridan and the SSP took the line of least resistance, of playing to the Scots narrative of difference and believing in the ‘myth’ of a collective, solidaristic nation.”)
Gall is also surprisingly uncritical (given his background in the SWP) of Sheridan’s admiration of Cuba and Venezuala. According to Gall, this demonstrated that Sheridan was “able to show that his political outlook extended beyond mere protest and resistance.”
A more critical approach would have raised the question of what Sheridan’s support for Cuba and Venezuala implied for his own conception of socialism. It would also have raised the question of whether Sheridan’s admiration of Castro and Chavez had any implications for how he saw his own role in relation to the broader SSP.
Another question thrown up by the book is what Gall himself was doing when the events he describes in it were unfolding. After all, he was (and is) an SSP member and a former member of its National Council and Executive Committee.
Gall answers the question at page 348:
“(I wrote this biography) as an academic who is a socialist and SSP member, not as a socialist and SSP member who happens to also be an academic. … In the faction fight and ensuing battles (from 2004 onwards), I was an observer not a participant.”
In fact, Gall’s self-praise for standing on the sidelines of a conflict that tore apart the SSP goes even further: “I have shown, by common acclaim(!), the trait of being politically committed while having a non-sectarian and balanced, open and fair perspective and analysis.”
Gall pulls together a large amount of material in his book. But whether that means that it “comes as close as is possible in terms of source material to being a definitive and authoritative biography as possible” is rather more debatable.