Tommy Sheridan: hoist with the left’s own petard
The imprisonment of Scottish socialist Sheridan is a disgrace to justice – and a sign of the danger of having illusions in the state.
If events in Egypt show the potential for a new era of political revolt, then the sad, sordid case of Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish socialist firebrand sentenced to three years in prison for perjury last week, confirms the decline of the old left now facing a death sentence – something that continues to affect struggles around the world.
Sheridan, the former frontman for the Scottish Socialist Party and member of the Scottish Parliament, was found guilty of perjury – lying under oath – during a libel trial in 2006 where he won £200,000 damages from the News of the World over allegations that he visited sex clubs and had affairs. In the bitter war of words that followed his conviction, Sheridan has been called many things, from hero and martyr to traitor and ‘mad shagger’, according to whom you listen to.
One thing Sheridan should not be branded, however, is a convicted criminal. His jail sentence is a disgrace to justice that could set a dangerous precedent, as we shall see later. But that does not make him a martyr. In many ways, Sheridan has been hoist with his own political petard.
The courtroom circus about his lifestyle has led to suggestions that Sheridan is a maverick, a loose cannon on the left, and that his shortcomings are personal. But it might well be more productive to see his strange behaviour during these legal cases as the end result of two great failings of the wider British left: their illusions in the potential benevolence of the British state, and their delusions about their own importance and influence.
There is no doubt that the authorities pursued Sheridan through the courts with some vindictiveness. But despite the shrill talk of an anti-Tommy conspiracy, it is important to recall that this legal process all started when Sheridan dragged the News of the World into court on dubious grounds, not the other way around. In a breathtaking display of naivety, he sought to use the libel laws, widely recognised as a rich man’s weapon to attack free speech, for his own ends. Although Sheridan won the libel verdict against the unpopular tabloid newspaper, the outcome was to prove a disaster for him and the former comrades who were summoned to court to testify against him. It brought to mind Voltaire’s observation that he had been ruined twice in his life, once when he lost a court case and the other time when he won one.
This libel debacle was a working illustration of the illusions that the British left has sown in the institutions of the British state. Sheridan comes from the Labourist tradition of state socialism, which has long looked to official action from above by governments, councils or courts as the motor for progressive change. Sheridan was far from the first socialist to get burnt when he discovered that the courts, like other powerful institutions of the British state, are not there to serve ‘the people’. Yet still the illusion in the neutrality of the state persists, as Sheridan reportedly plans to go back to the courts to sue the News of the World over allegations that it tapped his phone – a self-defeating exercise in which he may well be joined by other prominent state socialists such as George Galloway and railwaymen’s union leader Bob Crow.
Alongside the illusions in the state, the Sheridan case also demonstrates the left’s delusions about itself. The Stalinist-fantasist tendency of the British left has a longstanding tendency to refuse to accept its own failings and defeats or acknowledge political realities. Sheridan’s surreal-sounding defence in the perjury trial was to claim that there had been a top-level conspiracy across the Establishment to frame him as an adulterer and pervert. Why would they go to such lengths? Obviously, claimed Sheridan, in revenge for the fact that he had been largely responsible for single-handedly bringing down Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher some 15 years earlier, when he had been jailed for non-payment of the poll tax.
Sheridan’s self-aggrandising tale sounded so mad that in the end even a sympathetic jury could not swallow it fully. Yet he was only personalising what the whole left in and around the Labour Party has always claimed – that despite being routed by the Tories through the 1980s they were somehow magically responsible for defeating Thatcher and doing everything else good, while anything bad that happens to them is the fault of the tabloid press. To paraphrase, they believe that ‘It was the left wot won it’. The mixture of self-delusion and nostalgia and an over-arching refusal to face up to defeat is characteristic of a left that some time ago became detached from reality and blind to the changing landscape of politics.
The self-image of Sheridan and his erstwhile colleagues in the Scottish Socialist Party as a radical political alternative was always delusional. Their brief moment in the spotlight of electoral success was a side-effect of the rise to power of New Labour, which created a space for Sheridan and Co. to take up the banners of traditional Labourism. But given that the exhaustion of those old politics was responsible for New Labour’s triumph in the first place, it was never likely to last long.
Now the degradation of the old left has reached the point where Sheridan and his erstwhile allies are reduced to swapping insults in the bourgeois courts and media. Sheridan’s critics have pointed out that his battle with the News of the World was less of a left v right struggle than a bad PR case of a tabloid falling out with a celebrity. Insofar as there is any political content to the split between Sheridan and his ex-comrades, it appears to be largely a rehearsal of an old debate familiar from the 1980s: between the supporters of the fragmentary identity politics of race and gender, and the diehard state socialists whose insistence that everything can be reduced to class lets them off the hook from confronting difficult political issues. (An ex-Militant Tendency man like Sheridan is a prime exponent of these latter politics, which Lenin characterised as economism.) Neither of those leftist tendencies was up to the job 25 years ago; there is little point re-running that battle of yesterday’s losers today.
All the talk of conspiracies around the Sheridan affair ignores the real danger the case has raised. It has set a precedent for a new way in which the legal authorities can override a jury if they don’t like the verdict. At the end of the original libel trial, which Sheridan won, the judge announced that somebody had clearly committed perjury because there had been such a conflict between the evidence given by witnesses on opposing sides in their accounts of, say, SSP executive meetings. A police investigation and the perjury prosecution followed. Yet don’t all trials revolve around conflicting accounts and versions of the truth? Isn’t that partly the point of the adversarial system? If judges are to start awarding themselves the freedom to overthrow jury verdicts and send the police dogs to enforce their will, where will it end? That potential perversion of justice is a far more important issue than the question of what you might think of Sheridan and his behaviour.
To understand the state machine for what it is makes it possible to see that danger. Instead, those who cling to the illusions of state socialism are now in danger of being sucked into another round of self-defeating kowtowing to the judges.
Tommy Sheridan should not be in prison, and should be judged only in the court of public opinion. But in political terms it is likely to be game over for Sheridan’s school of leftism as surely as for the likes of Egypt’s Mubarak. The world will need an alternative left politics if people are to take advantage of the new opportunities for change. And that is the whole truth, like it or not.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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