"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sex, lies and factionalism: civil war in the SSP

The Observer reports that when the verdict in Tommy Sheridan's defamation action against the News of the World was announced, the assembled press pack were "astounded".

I think it would be fair to say they weren't the only ones. I suppose it's possible that the jury believed Tommy's egotistical tale of a conspiracy against him that was so wide-reaching and elaborate that SSP co-founder McCombes was prepared to be jailed to protect a forged minute - but I doubt it. More likely, the view of the jury would have been similar to the majority of people I've spoken to since the verdict was announced. I can make no claim that they are representative but I've yet to find a solitary individual that believes Tommy Sheridan told the truth in court. But he still won. While there's no way of knowing how the jury came to their decision, if this jury - as the legal fiction would have it - was representative of the 'ordinary person', I'd suggest the following factors came into play.

For one, while Sheridan himself never used the privacy defence, there's a strong feeling against the NOTW and papers of their ilk attempting to destroy a politician through revelations about their alleged extra-curricular activities. That this was an English paper having a go at a Scottish politician probably didn't help.

There was also the small matter of the paper's case. While it's difficult to understand how the jury came to the conclusion that all of the NOTW's witnesses were lying, they did have the admissions from Anvar Khan and Fiona McGuire that some of the evidence had been fluffed-up in the interests of selling a tabloid story. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that the jury gave Sheridan the benefit of the doubt. Underlying this would have been the understanding that while the NOTW can afford to lose 200k, Tommy Sheridan certainly could not.

Then there was the extraordinary performance of Sheridan and his wife to consider. Gail did a Mary Archer, Sheridan wept as he spoke of his love for his wife and child: dull stuff like evidence can't compete with this.

But I'm left wondering if the jury considered that it was not only Sheridan's reputation and livelihood at stake here. Sheridan has won his case but the SSP have surely lost. This is only the beginning of the divisions and in-fighting that originate with Sheridan's decision to sue for defamation. Now Sheridan, having effectively accused 11 of his MSP colleagues of perjuring themselves in court, intends to wrest control of the party from the 'cabal' - which includes McCombes the party's co-founder and their convener Colin Fox, whom Sheridan supported for the leadership - he claims was out to destroy him in the first place.

Fox's response to the result made the whole case even more surreal than it was already. He insists he told the truth in court yet simultaneously welcomed Sheridan's victory, reportedly saying he would be 'relaxed' about Sheridan telling "fibs" to defeat the Murdoch paper. Given that he is a member of Holyrood's justice committee and considering he himself is likely to face a police investigation for perjury, this is a truly bizarre position for the leader of a political party to take.

Maybe it's the infamous Scottish "I kent yer faither" attitude on my part but unlike my friends Will and Hak Mao, along with many other people I know, I just don't "get" Sheridan at all. He was right about the poll tax and he was right about warrant sales. I would say he's right about drugs except I don't quite understand how support for "cannabis cafes" is consistent with a ban on smoking in public places, which all the SSP, including Sheridan, voted for.

And that isn't the only part of the SSP platform that doesn't make any sense to me. The party favours a policy of "nationalisation without compensation". We can only assume the party adopts this stance out of admiration for Castro's Cuba. Indeed, Sheridan is so enthusiastic about the dictatorship he wanted to be married there. He didn't, as it turned out. In this, as in so many other areas, his wife Gail has proved to be much the more sensible and canny of the pair.

They also favour something called the "Scottish service tax" to replace the council tax. The problem with this is it is to be collected nationally through PAYE - a policy that represents the effective abolition of local government in Scotland.

On top of this, the SSP foreign policy is the usual package of hostility towards the USA and Israel combined with a policy of appeasement towards Middle Eastern dictators. Sheridan who denounced the illegality of the Iraq war also adopted a position of opposition to regime-change in Afghanistan, despite the unanimous decision of the Security Council to mandate the invasion. Which is not to say that there weren't good arguments to be made against both of these but clearly UN legalism wasn't one of them.

But of course this had nothing to do with policies and that has been the problem with this whole trial. It represents a victory for the politics of celebrity and the politics of identity. It is Sheridan's charisma alone that unifies the disparate and inchoate strands that make up the pro-Sheridan "SSP majority" - this being the group who will in due course move to have Sheridan re-installed as leader and have the "scabs" and "traitors" who testified for the NOTW expelled from the party. You can only believe they have betrayed the working class if you accept Sheridan's vainglorious self-image as the personification of the proletariat. And only those willing to ignore evidence can convince themselves that people like McCombes or Rosie Kane somehow represent the bourgeoisie.

But people do - and this is the politics of charisma, pure and simple. Only allegiance to the leader unifies the incoherent political alliance that stands behind Sheridan. He is a nationalist politician, yet a large chunk of the "SSP majority" includes the London-based SWP and the Committee for a Worker's International.

And it is also the politics of identity. National identity and class identity. But that "class" in this context has nothing much to do with Marxian concepts can be seen in the way Sheridan and his supporters behave. Only this can explain the ludicrous notion that someone like Alan McCombes is "middle class" - for class here is not a matter of one's relationship to the means of production but rather one of allegiance and culture.

Here I have to declare an interest. I've known people like Sheridan all my adult life and while I don't worry about it becoming a reality, I have no doubt at all that I wouldn't fare very well in an "independent Scottish republic" with someone like Tommy Sheridan as President for Life.

Because people like Tommy Sheridan hate people like me. I could claim this is because I refuse to defer to them, because I argue with them and ask them questions that they can't answer. But is would be a false self-flattery. The truth is it is because I'm not one of them. They know it, I know it, and they know I know it. I was born in the wrong town, I have the wrong accent and the wrong attitude; not loyal enough, not macho enough. Despite the fact that I too have to sell my labour for a living, to them I am The Other. From experience I have good reason to believe they hate me for it. This is why, his personal charms notwithstanding, I decline to call Tommy Sheridan "comrade". He represents the politics of personalisimo - and I take it personally.

Update: Following his defamation victory Sheridan said, "It's time to put our differences behind us and re-build the Scottish Socialist Party".

No, of course he didn't. He said it's time to rip it up and start again. I particularly liked this bit:

"He spoke of his determination to regain control of the party he co-founded eight years ago. And he warned that, without his leadership, the SSP are doomed.

Sheridan said failure in his leadership challenge would mean the SSP had condemned themselves to "virtual oblivion" and he would quit the party."
So you better take heed, comrades - if Tommy doesn't get his way you should understand that his threat to take his ball home is to be taken seriously.

Who was it that coined the term 'cult of personality' again?

Update #2: Forget the Scottish media, seems you have to go to New York for some sharp comment.

Update #3:

A win for machismo - from the Guardian.

The SSP executive's take (pdf):

"A few years ago, the CWI issued a press release denouncing Tommy Sheridan as a "neo-Stalinist" because of his support for Cuba. This was an absurd and unjustifiable attack. Yet ironically, the CWI and others, including especially the SWP, have today bought into a concept of socialism which contains disturbing elements of Stalinism.

In the 1930s the choice before the Communist movement was presented as either for Stalin, or for Hitler. Either for the GPU (later renamed the KGB), or for the Gestapo. Either for the Soviet Union, or for fascism. This was backed by hysterical demagogy and vicious character assassination of all dissidents. In the frenzied
conditions of the 1930s, it was also backed up by mass violence, terror and torture.

Conspiracy theories were concocted purporting to prove that old Bolsheviks were in the pay of Hitler, and had plans to carry out mass murder by poisoning the Soviet Union's water supply. Europe's left intelligentsia - the artists, writers and academics - overwhelmingly sided with Stalin against the dissident left, even during the Moscow Trials when grotesque confessions were extracted from broken individuals.

The cultural elite had been mesmerised by the power and charisma of Stalin, and were convinced he was the only hope for socialism. They believed what they wanted to believe. In comparison to these events, the troubles of the SSP are trivial and the behaviour of Tommy Sheridan petty and pathetic. Yet events in the SSP in the past few months have revealed a glimpse of the same psychological processes that in the past, under much more grave conditions, led to tyranny."

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