Tommy Sheridan and the myth of Scotland’s compassionate society

In a revised extract from his introduction to a new biography of Tommy Sheridan, Gerry Hassan exposes the weaknesses of Scotland’s belief in its solid left-wing culture and raises questions for independence and the future.

In a revised extract from his introduction to a new biography of Tommy Sheridan, Gerry Hassan exposes the weaknesses of Scotland’s belief in its solid left-wing culture and raises questions for independence and the future.

Tommy Sheridan – From Hero to Zero?Gregor Gall, Welsh Academic Press, £25

The rise and fall of Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is a gripping morality tale, worthy of fiction, which reflects not just on the central actors and the wider array of participants, but on modern Scotland; the power and limits of personality politics; the role of charisma, belief and hubris; the inherent weakness in hyper-left politics; and not least on the role of a certain kind of Scottish man.

Gregor Gall has told this byzantine tale in great detail and with a forensic ability to treat it as fairly as possible, given the many agendas and sense of hurt and betrayal that so many people feel. It can be read as a story of a narrow part of the left which some think was always going to self-destruct. It can also be read as an indictment of the depth and health of the Scottish body politic and asks vital questions about us and the future of Scotland and its politics.

The rise of Sheridan and the SSP has to be seen in the context of Scottish politics and culture. The SSP emerged as Militant in the 1980s with a very public role in the struggle against the poll tax. However it made a bigger national impact when New Labour under Blair and Brown bestrode the centre ground.  In Scotland, an unsure Lab-Lib coalition held power during the first eight years of the Scottish Parliament, nervous about the shadow of New Labour or breaking free from its influence.

Labour’s uber-cautious nature and the struggling SNP opposition offered a perfect stage for Sheridan, a platform for hard left politics, an opening and a vacuum. In this fertile environment, Sheridan was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SSP had a major breakthrough in the 2003 election and the short-lived “rainbow Parliament” was born.

‘The Long Revolution’ of postwar Scotland

A longer, deeper set of trends contributed to this juncture (1). Increasingly over the last 30 years, changes in class and nation have shaped Scottish politics, identities and culture, aided by popular experience and perceptions of Thatcherism and then New Labour.  Scotland become less working class “objectively” in terms of employment and status, but conversely people see themselves as more working class. Two thirds of Scots identify as working class (2), and the Scottish Election Survey found that in 2007 those who identified as working class saw themselves as more Scottish than the middle class did, reinforcing the politics of class and nation (3).

The pattern is very different in England and Wales with the “death of class” and birth of New Labour. In one survey, broadly, three quarter of respondents saw themselves as middle class, just under a quarter as working class (4). Other surveys disagree, but there is little doubt that the importance and interpretation of class has developed increasingly different connotations north and south of the border (5).  Despite the ubiquitous narrative of difference, Scotland is not really that different from England; but such a statement ignores how people “feel” and the importance of lived experience.

Scotland has been defined for generations by a left politics, but increasingly in modern times it has done so without an active left, just the memory and folklore of a left. This has contributed to the mythologising and romanticising of Scottish society, culture and politics, and over the last 40 years to the powerful myth of “Labour Scotland” . This myth became the normative setting for assumptions through which two generations of Labour politicians from Willie Ross to Gordon Brown saw Scotland - as collective, semi-socialist and all-pervasively Labour.

What’s left of the Scottish Left?

The left in Scotland has been disillusioned and in retreat for three decades, creating a climate which was receptive to the charms of Tommy Sheridan and the SSP.  In the years of left retreat, many personality cults have flourished: Jimmy Reid, Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway.  I would argue that all of these political figures have been given an over-important “‘Big Man” status because of the decline of the left,  rather than coming from and contributing to a vibrant left.

Tommy Sheridan and the SSP did at points have influence and alarmed mainstream politicians, at the time of the poll tax struggle, and even more, in the early days of the Scottish Parliament. Yet their influence was always episodic, their analysis too simplistic and filled with caricature and contradictions. There was the one dimensional Militant Marxism, persuasively analysed by former member Alex Wood as elitist, morally vacuous and  factionalist (6). In the party’s latter stages, its over-simple stance became a fantastical, prophetic, almost millennial style politics, of the triumph of will, “anger” and “rage”.

Never did the Sheridan left set out to develop a politics which told a complex story of modern Scotland, and hold those in power to account, including the establishment voices and institutions who pay passing lip service to social democracy. A vibrant, bold, challenging Scottish left would have taken institutional Scotland to task for the grotesque state of much of Scottish life, for the scale of poverty, inequality and exclusion in one of the richest lands in the world. Instead, Sheridan and the SSP took the line of least resistance, playing to the Scots narrative of difference and believing in the myth of a collectivist, solidaristic nation.

The Future of the Left

Finally, to understand what happened and shape the future, we have to ask how was Tommy Sheridan possible? The Sheridan story tells us something about the politics of gender and Scottish masculinity. At points in his rise Sheridan seemed to represent an emotional intelligence and insight rare in Scottish political life. Instead he went down a predictable road of self-aggrandisement and self-destruction, a pattern familiar to many in the tradition of the West of Scotland working class local hero. The man, the politician and phenomenon springs from our political and public culture, its myths and folklores, its shallowness, and our want to believe too much of its conceits.

Scotland sees itself as a compassionate, caring, inclusive society, one which is egalitarian, welcoming and anti-hierarchical – a conceit that we fail to challenge while we refuse to acknowledge the complexities of power and inequality in a modern Scotland that is a mixture of  “post-democracy”, Colin Crouch’s term to define the increasing concentrations of corporate power which have distorted public life and democracy across the west, and an insipid, compromised social democracy (7).

This leads us to the present terrain: one post-left with a neo-liberal vandalism standing at the gates.  After the vanguardist revolution, after the retreat of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal revolution, can we imagine a different, democratising vision of revolution?  In Scotland, in the UK, in the eurozone and globally, we are confronted by an out of control hunter gatherer capitalism that, unchecked, threatens to undermine the economic and social rights that are the hallmark of a “civilised society”.

After Tommy Sheridan, the traditional left and the “near-left” of Blair and Clinton, we have to develop a politics which goes beyond resistance to market vandalism. We must create spaces and capacity to challenge the “official future”, the remorseless logic of the world as it is, and take back and create a different future. That was once the promise of the left, and we desperately need to learn a new politics of change, imagination and democratising the future.

The SNP's project of self-government and independence has for many the potential to address this agenda and make a different and distinctive Scottish statehood.  However, one of the challenges post-Sheridan is that Alex Salmond and the SNP have to give shape to this without any powerful voices on the radical left to counterbalance the forces pulling the party towards a pro-corporate, Scotland plc agenda.  We will never know if the SSP could have played a powerful role in such a constituency on the left, but its implosion and the current void on the left could be felt in years to come.


Notes

1. G. Hassan and E. Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2012.

2. The latest available data is from 2005. Personal communication from Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. See also: L. Paterson, F. Bechhofer and D. McCrone, Living in Scotland: Social and Economic Change since 1980, Edinburgh University Press 2004, p. 99.

3. R. Johns, D. Denver, J. Mitchell and C. Pattie, Voting for a Scottish Government: The Scottish Parliament Election of 2007, Manchester University Press 2010, pp. 81-82.

4.. What about the Workers?: A New Study of the Working Class, Britain Thinks 2011. Private information from authors. http://britainthinks.com/

5. See for example A. Heath, J. Martin and G. Elgenius, “Who Do We Think We Are?: The Decline of Traditional Social Identities”, in A. Park, J. Curtice, K. Thomson, M. Phillips and M. Johnston (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 23rd Report, Sage 2007.

6.  A. Wood, ‘An ethical emptiness’, Scottish Review, November 20th 2010, http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood72.shtml

7. C. Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity Press 2004.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com