Former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan is likely to face several years jail, after being found guilty of perjury on 23 December. He will be sentenced on 26 January.
This is the latest in a long and sad story. In 2004 the News of the World published allegations about Sheridan’s private life.
The News of the World was, and is, a foul right-wing scandal rag. The Murdoch press was after Sheridan because of his activity on the Scottish left.
Sheridan won a libel action against the News of the World in 2006. Then, very unusually, the police launched a perjury investigation into the person whose testimony had been accepted by the court — Sheridan.
Well over a million pounds were spent on the police investigation. Resources normally reserved only for the most serious of crimes were allocated to it.
We should oppose and denounce Sheridan being jailed as a result of his clash with the News of the World.
But there is more to the Sheridan saga.
It was Sheridan’s choice to sue the News of the World after its 2004 article. He demanded that the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), of which he was then the best-known leader, back his legal action.
The SSP refused; and with good reason. Politically, it was much better just to let the scandal pass with minimal comment.
Sheridan went ahead anyway. That was the trigger for subsequent events. Whatever plot the News of the World or the police or New Labour had had against him, it was Sheridan’s decision to sue that inflated a small irritation into a major cause of damage for the left in Scotland.
It split the SSP. It reduced an organisation which had won 10% of the vote in Glasgow for a period, and recruited a membership equivalent (in proportion to Scotland’s population) to 30,000 in Britain, to two small rump groups.
SSP members were legally obliged to give evidence in the libel case. To win Sheridan had to persuade the jury that they were liars and motivated by personal malice. After the close of the trial Sheridan denounced them as “scabs”.
In the perjury trial Sheridan’s defence relied on accusations and attempted character assassinations of long-standing socialists which would hardly have been out of place in a 1930s Moscow show trial.
Sheridan’s supporters, notably the SWP and the Socialist Party, insisted on “full support” for Sheridan, regardless of the collateral damage to the left, solely on the grounds that he was up against the Murdoch press and the police.
Sadly, many SSP members have responded to the perjury verdict with triumphalist denunciations of Sheridan. And worse.
SSP members in the 2006 trial could legitimately argue that they had been dragged into court against their will. Not SSP member Gordon McNeilage. He sold his videotape of Sheridan’s confessions to the News of the World for £200,000 and signed a contract under which he agreed to write an article for the paper and assist the paper and the police in any subsequent legal proceedings.
An attempt to move an emergency motion at the 2006 SSP conference, condemning McNeilage for handing over the tape to the News of the World, was successfully opposed by the SSP leadership.
The SSP says it will now “draw a line under this sorry saga and move on”. It is not doing that; but it should do it. And in doing so it needs to reverse the trend of recent years when, in the shadow of the Sheridan row, socialist politics in Scotland has been diluted into a mix of Scottish populism, catchpenny sloganising, and Stalinism.