by Carol Hainey
Response to Professor Gregor Gall’s “TOMMY SHERIDAN: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography.”
Tommy Sheridan flirted with me at a demo, when I was a young anti-poll-tax activist. He was making a speech and tried to impress me, even though I was with my boyfriend. It was an unpleasant experience. My boyfriend held me closer, while Sheridan made more effort to flirt. I was a piece of meat stuck in the middle of a competitive exchange between two men. I wasn’t impressed, finding Sheridan creepy, but what if he had tried at a different time?
I agree with Allan Green’s review of Gregor Gall’s book which appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice (http://www.scottishsocialistvoice.net/ ). Allan’s main point is that Sheridan cannot be considered a socialist hero, because since 2004 he has spent more time attacking the left than the right. My contribution is a personal response to the issues raised by Gregor’s book. I seek to augment Allan’s review with regard to feminism and the United Left (UL) platform of the Scottish Socialist Party.
The strength of Gregor’s book is his outline of Sheridan’s ruthless conspiracy against the SSP. This is powerful because the author describes himself as sympathetic to Sheridan. He also demonstrates that there was no conspiracy within the SSP against Sheridan and that all of Sheridan’s supporters knew this. Gregor gives a clear analysis of Sheridan’s legal strategy in the perjury trial and he explains that the public are entitled to know about Sheridan’s sex life, because as a prominent politician he chose to take a defamation case based on lies against the advice of his comrades and in doing so, he split the SSP.
Gregor makes a complicated case for Sheridan having a different morality that was all about winning, even though ultimately he lost. Better explanations for Sheridan’s behaviour are given elsewhere, such as in Alan McCombes’ book: “Downfall, the Tommy Sheridan Story.” In my opinion Sheridan is a sociopathic, narcissistic abuser.
I found Gregor’s use of the word “troika” to describe Alan McCombes, Allan Green and Sheridan an offensive affectation. They used their initiative, but both Alan and Allan are approachable and accountable. Amusingly, later in the book the “troika” changes to Alan, Carolyn Leckie and Frances Curran, with no explanation of how Allan Green was deposed! I found Gregor’s analysis of Alan and Sheridan being similar to one another fanciful rather than dialectical.
In the book, I struggle to understand how Colin Fox could describe Alan McCombes and Keith Baldassara as similar to Sheridan. I found it offensive that Colin likened the split between Sheridan and Alan, Keith and George McNeilage to the break-up of a mafia family. Mafioso prey on communities, whereas Alan, Keith and George were utterly committed to the community.
Gregor fails to convey the horror of the May 28th 2006 SSP National Council meeting where Sheridan effectively declared war on the SSP, releasing his “Open Letter” (including to the Murdoch press) and adopting the strategy he would later use in court. There was heckling and foot-stamping and a Sheridan supporter called a woman MSP a “cunt.” Sheridan deliberately exploited existing fault-lines. Those who supported his position that feminists were turning the party into a “gender obsessed discussion group” have politics more suited to the Dark Ages than a modern progressive movement.
Gregor says the SSP was dominated by the “troika” because we had “poor and stunted cadre development.” But the split, when it happened, was along class and gender lines with two cadre organisations, the SWP and CWI backing Sheridan for opportunistic reasons, because they saw it as a chance to destroy and replace what they could not control. Those individuals with the most awful gender politics, men and women, went with Sheridan.
Gregor mentions the sectarian actions of Sheridan’s supporters in standing Sheridan’s mother, Alice against sitting SSP councillor, Keith Baldassara in Pollok in 2007. This led to the loss of their socialist councillor for a community which contributed so much to building an alternative to neo-liberalism in Scotland.
It's disappointing that Gregor fails to adequately analyse the gender politics of the catastrophe in the SSP caused by Sheridan’s behaviour, because this was the crux of the situation.
Gregor makes sweeping statements about the “tactical ineptitude” of the United Left Platform and radical feminists. One footnote regarding this is ugly, but provides no evidence of tactical ineptitude and says nothing about radical feminism.
Gregor claims the political stance of radical feminists made it easy for Sheridan to scape-goat them. This is tiresome. Women are told we “ask for it” when we drink, when we nag, when we wear sexy clothes. Gregor tells us we are “asking” to be scape-goated politically by being explicitly feminist. By shifting the blame to feminists, Gregor avoids examining the appallingly misogynistic attacks on prominent women such as SSP Minutes Secretary, Barbara Scott. I'm proud of the men and women who stood together on gender issues during this crisis. If more had done so, Sheridan would not have succeeded in blaming SSP women for the consequences of his own behaviour.
I am proud of the United Left network. Our objectives weren’t just about Sheridan. We wanted to improve SSP democracy and introduce radical education methods and increase the party’s commitment to feminism. But we stood together and defended the founding principles of the SSP against the most dreadful treachery.
United Left meetings were some of the most creative events I have ever attended. If Gregor had attended one of those meetings, he might not be so attached to the cadre method of organisation. We did make a few mistakes though. We should have attacked Sheridan immediately when he declared war at the May 28th NC. And I’ll admit our name was aspirational, but less so than Sheridan’s “SSP Majority” platform, which formed in response to us! Gregor gets a bit hung up on counting signatories to the respective statements of the two platforms. With regard to this, Andy Harvey made us laugh at a UL meeting, saying: “Now then comrades, let’s not engage in petition envy.”
The author says that after winning his defamation case, Sheridan didn’t expect the SSP leadership to fight a rearguard action. In truth, it was a full-scale rebellion against Sheridan and it was led by women and the United Left. Sheridan did himself huge damage with his “scabs” outburst. But all over Scotland, SSP branches passed motions censuring him and he knew he had lost the support of the majority of the party. He knew he would not be selected as top candidate in Glasgow for the Scottish parliament elections, so he forced his supporters into splitting the SSP and forming Solidarity.
Gregor seems confused on misogyny and sexism, stating sexual behaviour is only worthy of censure if it involves coercion or exploitation while simultaneously acknowledging power dynamics may affect the basis on which consent is given. Men paid a door fee at Cupids. It suits predatory ageing politicians like Sheridan, Strauss Kahn and Berlusconi to portray their sexual encounters with young women as consensual, but what is the power dynamic?
The author separates sexism from misogyny. He seems to say that unless Sheridan is hateful to women all the time, he is not a misogynist. By that yardstick even Fred West could not be regarded as a misogynist, because Rosemary maintains he was nice to her sometimes.
Gregor’s book certainly details Sheridan being hateful towards women. I shivered when I read of Frances Curran challenging Sheridan’s predatory sexual behaviour during the anti-poll-tax years. She alleged he used young women for casual sex when they thought they were starting a relationship with him. It was consensual, but Frances recognised the power imbalance. Gregor describes Sheridan ignoring these women afterwards. I wonder if there was a deliberate cruelty in this which Sheridan enjoyed? Did Sheridan enjoy humiliating his former lovers by cross-examining them in court? Abusive men are renowned for using the courts to further their abuse. Does Sheridan take pleasure from publicly humiliating Gail?
One of the most horrifying stories was of Sheridan using his political position to gain access to young women from the schemes. He allegedly coerced Laura Smith to have group sex with him and a football friend. There are claims Sheridan enjoyed being deliberately hurtful and disloyal to a partner.
Gregor alleges that Sheridan participated in hardcore sex shows with paid strippers and lap dancers. It’s actually terrifying that SSP women ever got in a car with him. The sex trade is exploitative and abusive. At the Moat House Hotel party, a businessman paid for the services of a prostituted woman, though Sheridan allegedly admitted to being present, not to participating. Most women in prostitution were abused children and most want out. Several men having group sex with a prostituted woman is about exhibiting hegemonic masculinity. It’s about demonstrating that they are men, by degrading and dehumanising a woman.
Predatory sexual behaviour makes the socialist movement unsafe, unwelcoming and demotivating for women. Feminists describe sexism and misogyny as being on a continuum. Any kind of “othering” dehumanises women and makes them vulnerable to more serious abuse. Sexual harassment is part of rape culture. This is a dialectical approach. The aim is to shift people, organisations and societies to a more progressive place on the continuum.
Gregor woman-blames when he says that Sheridan’s hostility to Carolyn could be “explained by her reputation for frostiness and abrasiveness.” It is more likely explained by Sheridan’s misogyny. As Andrea Dworkin said: “feminism is hated because women are hated. Anti-feminism is the direct expression of misogyny. It is the political defence of women hating." Gregor is sexist in his description of Carolyn as frosty and Gail Sheridan as “feisty,” as these are not adjectives used to describe men.
The author demonstrates that Sheridan has a track record of using his wife as camouflage to get what he wants. Other than that, the analysis of Gail’s role is superficial and there is no examination of the misogynistic role played by Sheridan's women supporters. Even after Sheridan was freed from jail, Gail appeared in the Daily Record torturing Katrine Trolle. Sometimes during the defamation trial, on hearing the talk of women supporters of Sheridan, I feared for Carolyn’s safety. One of the most bizarre things I witnessed was during the perjury trial. The tape was playing and Sheridan referred to Carolyn as “that cunt Leckie”. One of Sheridan’s supporters, Fatima Uygun turned to us SSP women and smirked. I can’t get my head round that, how any woman can take pleasure from hearing a man describe another woman as a cunt.
Women don’t feature much in the book until Rosie Kane suddenly appears in Chapter 5, with little explanation of where she came from and she and Carolyn are described in terms of what Sheridan thought of them. The point I assume is that at that time Sheridan was positive about them, but it does continue the theme that women are only important in the story in so far as they relate to the “great man”. There is very little mention of Frances Curran and Catriona Grant which is surprising because they were both around for most of the story.
Gregor describes Sheridan as having “balls of steel.” But hegemonic masculinity is based on cowardice. It is about terror of being “othered”, of being less of a man. Sheridan conducted his courtroom dramas and his conspiracy against the SSP from behind the skirts of his wife, mother, sisters and even his daughter. He accused Catriona Grant of trying to murder his unborn child, for opposing him politically. It is an act of cowardice to fail to take responsibility for one’s own behaviour. Sheridan also hid behind greater struggles and the weasel words of media pals and fancy lawyers.
Sheridan abused his friends by telling them about his sexual behaviour then demanding their silence. Gregor writes of Sheridan trying to find people’s weak spots.
Sheridan felt he was entitled to loyalty and silence from the entire SSP. This sense of entitlement is common in abusers. He uses the word “destroy” frequently, for example Anvar Khan, the “scabs.” This rage and sense of entitlement and his genuine attempts to destroy the SSP and his former lovers has echoes of omnipotent fathers who murder their families rather than give up control over them.
Gregor quotes Paul Hutcheon of the Sunday Herald saying that Sheridan’s summing up speech during the defamation trial was the best speech of his career. It depends what you like in a speech, but up to a point I would agree. However, it was pitiful to watch him use his best talent to damage the SSP. it certainly made me aware of how poor some of his usual shouting, ranting offerings were. I started to notice that Sheridan made more effort with his speeches if the media were present.
I laughed when I heard that during the perjury trial, the jury asked the judge to tell Sheridan to stop shouting. I have to say though, I prefer the honest, poignant appraisal of the consequences of poverty in a Keith Baldassara speech; Or an honest, questioning, challenging and analytical Carolyn Leckie speech; Or Rosie Kane’s musical, rhythmical alliteration and humour using Glasgow working class dialect.
We were told repeatedly by Sheridan supporters such as Philip Stott of the CWI that we had to back Sheridan because he was the most influential socialist and we would be nothing without him. Ironically, in a political sense, Sheridan has become nothing without us. It’s no consolation of course that the SSP out-polled Solidarity in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. Nor that Solidarity are desperate to disband their party and have only held on until Sheridan was released from prison out of their continuing misguided loyalty to him.
I agree with Gregor that we need a political culture of democracy as well as good structures, but I believe it is feminism and radical education methods, rather than cadre education which will deliver this. Our experience in the SSP is not unusual. Throughout history women have recognised the need to challenge men politically, for example revolutionary Russia, or the Black Panther Party.
In retrospect, I believe that the UL should not have disbanded. We did so for the best of reasons, not wanting to dominate the SSP. But in disbanding ourselves we lost some momentum in introducing the changes we wanted to see.
We live with the consequences of Sheridan’s actions and of those who backed him. The struggle for socialism has suffered a setback, but I’m so proud of all the people who battled to save the SSP from what Sheridan and his supporters would have made it – a personality cult. Gregor writes of us as if we are nothing now. But I am so proud of these talented people for the various contributions they are making right now to Scottish society. Many of them, plus a new generation of activists, will play their part in the struggle for socially just Scottish independence.
These are interesting times for lesser reasons. Some of Sheridan’s former Solidarity supporters are rejoining the SSP. I welcome them, if for no other reason than it sets the record straight and applies pressure to those determined to remain in the vortex of their leader’s conspiracy.
The book focuses too much on what Sheridan did and why he did it. It is more important to examine how and why he got away with it until December 2010. Sheridan’s supporters are largely to blame for this, including the paid regional organisers who controlled the flow of information to party members. Those who remained within the SSP but appeased Sheridan until the very last moment and even thereafter, rather than confronting and isolating him were the ones who demonstrated tactical ineptitude. They confused some of the membership and allowed Sheridan and his supporters space for action.
The book is too long and subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history, where women appear rarely and when they do, are there only in supporting roles in relation to Sheridan. I would have preferred a book that told the story of the SSP, rather than focusing on Sheridan.