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Review: Tommy Sheridan bio 'essential reading'

Tommy Sheridan: From Hero To Zero? A Political Biography
By Gregor Gall
Welsh Academic Press, 2011, 360 pages

Review by Alex Miller

October 23, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In this book, Gregor Gall seeks to provide the “definitive and authoritative” political biography of Tommy Sheridan, former national convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

Like Alan McCombes’ Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story (see review at http://links.org.au/node/2521), Gall’s biography goes into great detail on the split within the SSP in 2006, Sheridan’s successful defamation case against News of the World, and his subsequent trial and conviction for perjury in 2010.

The books both agree on much of the basic factual issues surrounding the split and the two court actions. Sheridan proposed to take News of the World to court for publishing stories concerning his private life, stories that he admitted to be substantially true to a special meeting of the SSP national executive in November 2004. The national executive refused to back Sheridan’s court action, and the SSP subsequently split, with the pro-Sheridan forces forming a breakaway organisation, Solidarity.  In the wake of the split, the SSP lost all of its six seats in the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament, and Solidarity failed to have any electoral impact.

However, there are significant differences between the two books. McCombes is the SSP’s leading theoretician and former press and policy coordinator, and his book is written from the standpoint of a participant in the central events in the SSP’s rise as well as in the subsequent split. Gall’s book aspires to provide an account from a more objective perspective. He explains that he has tried to write the biography using the standard methods of research in the social sciences “as an academic who is a socialist and member of the SSP, and not as a socialist and SSP member who happens to also be an academic”. Further, Gall describes himself as an observer rather than a participant in the internal “faction fight and ensuing battles”.

Gall’s book is very impressive. His reference to the research methods of academic social science is not idle, and the huge amount of sheer hard work that has gone into its writing is evident from the detailed and meticulous referencing of sources in the copious footnotes that follow each chapter. In addition, Gall recorded more than 80 hours of interviews with figures from all sides of the conflict within the SSP, including Sheridan himself.

Despite this, the book is not an arid read: although the writing style is more pedestrian than that of Downfall, Gall’s prose is clear and effective. It’s also worth mentioning that in producing the book, Gall came under serious fire, including a letter sent to his university by Sheridan’s (then) solicitor Aamer Anwar, alleging that Gall had obtained interviews with Sheridan without his informed consent. Gall describes this as “part of a dishonest and disingenuous action to smear the biography as defamatory and politically motivated as well as to try to stop its publication”. A subsequent investigation by his university absolved Gall of any allegations of research misconduct, and it is to Gall’s great credit that he did not let this smear campaign interfere with the completion and publication of the book.

The reason Gall’s book attracted opprobrium from Sheridan’s corner is not difficult to locate. Gall’s account of the basic facts surrounding the split in the SSP undermines many of the claims made by Sheridan and his supporters. For example, “while there were tensions before November 2004, these were not due to a nascent or fully grown anti-Tommy faction as he alleged in court in 2010”. Gall describes the claim that there was an organised anti-Sheridan plot by the SSP leadership as “fanciful”. Indeed, as Gall points out, the faction fight that eventually broke out was initiated by Sheridan himself.

Although Gall’s book is strong on the facts of the case, it is occasionally weaker when it comes to argument and analysis.  I’ll illustrate this with a couple of examples.

Towards the end of the book, Gall rejects former SSP parliamentarian Rosie Kane’s claim that Sheridan’s behaviour in the lead-up to the split and beyond was the result of “an out of control ego”. Gall suggests that it was more to do with “faulty political calculation” leading to political mistakes and Sheridan’s belief that he had been betrayed generating “a self-righteous sense of being wronged”. No doubt those were important factors, but his argument against Kane’s charge of egoism is unconvincing: “If he was so concerned with ego, it is much less easy to understand why he could have set out on a course of action that could – and did – ultimately lead to jail and worse”. This is unconvincing because you could use the same argument to demonstrate that Hitler didn’t have an out of control ego: if he was so concerned with ego, why would he have set out on a course of action that could – and did – lead to the destruction of Berlin in 1945? If anything, Sheridan’s willingness to embark on such a potentially destructive course of action makes the charge of out of control egoism more, not less, plausible.

Some of Gall’s analysis is also unjustifiably negative towards McCombes’ reflections on Sheridan. Like Kane, McCombes cites a number of alleged psychological traits in his explanation of Sheridan’s conduct, accusing him of “being variously deceitful, conceited, cowardly, selfish, deranged, a fraud and so on”. Gall describes this as a “particularly non-materialist analysis”. While aspects of McCombes psychological explanation may be argued to be overblown, it is unfair to criticise them as “non-materialist”. Marxist materialist explanations concern large-scale historical shifts and social trends, explained in terms of the interaction of systems of production relations with the tendency of productive forces to develop, an interaction that is dynamic and mediated by class struggle. It is simply a category mistake to think that this materialist style of explanation might extend to the actions of individuals, and hence a mistake to criticise an explanation of an individual’s actions for being non-materialist. Thus, while a materialist explanation can be given of the coalescence of a bureaucratic stratum in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, it would be a mistake to expect a similar kind of explanation of why, for example, Stalin quarrelled with his second wife. So Gall’s criticism of McCombes misses its mark.

Despite these occasional lapses in analysis, however, Gall’s book deserves to be highly commended. It covers a lot more than the recent troubles besetting the SSP, including Sheridan’s positive role in the genesis and formation of the SSP as a result of the anti poll-tax campaign in the 1980s and 1990s. Read alongside McCombes’ Downfall it provides as detailed an account of the events of 2004-10 as is likely to be produced.

For anyone concerned with the history of the SSP in particular, or the possibilities for the development of broad socialist parties in general, it makes for essential reading.

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