In mid-December of last year Tommy Sheridan, former Scottish Parliament member and leader of the Scottish Socialist Party was arrested and charged with perjury.
In 2006, after the News of the World had carried articles alleging that he had engaged in extra-marital affairs and visited a swingers’ club in Manchester, Sheridan took the newspaper to court and was awarded £200,000 in damages after the jury found in his favour.
In the aftermath of the trial — which had seen leading figures in the SSP give evidence, under protest and unwillingly, against Sheridan — the SSP split. Backed by the Socialist Workers Party and the CWI (Scottish equivalent of the Socialist Party), Sheridan walked out from the SSP and formed “Solidarity”.
In the Scottish Parliament elections held in 2007 the four remaining SSP MSPs lost their seats. So too did Sheridan and the other SSP MSP who had left to join “Solidarity”.
The News of the World lodged an appeal against the verdict in favour of Sheridan. The police also began an investigation into whether perjury had been committed in the course of the trial. It was that investigation which culminated in last month’s arrest and charge.
Sheridan’s trial is not expected to take place until late 2008. And the appeal by the News of the World, for obvious reasons, cannot be heard until after completion of the perjury trial.
In public, the SSP has dismissed last month’s events as matters of little significance:
“The SSP notes the charging of former member Tommy Sheridan with perjury. The SSP is far more interested in campaigning to improve the lives of working people in Scotland… etc etc.”
This seems a rather curt dismissal of the charging of such an important former member. Sheridan was, after all, the party’s first MSP. His marriage ceremony was covered in the party’s paper. His face adorned SSP t-shirts. Sheridan enjoyed tremendous popularity, and the SSP “cashed in” (politically) on that personal popularity.
But the imposition of charges and the fact that a trial is pending place limitations on what the SSP (or anyone else) can say about Sheridan and the alleged perjury.
“Solidarity” has responded to Sheridan’s arrest very differently. (But it must be a matter of some debate as to whether “Solidarity” can be said to still exist: neither the CWI nor the SWP now shows much enthusiasm for it, it never attracted many ‘independents’, and not a few of those who did join it have since resigned.)
According to statements on the “Solidarity” website, socialists “across the UK and beyond have come together to launch a campaign and website in support of victimised… Tommy Sheridan.” “Solidarity” is “prepared for one hell of a battle in 2008.”
The campaign is demanding “an end to the Murdoch witch-hunt” (presumably a populist way of saying that the charge against Sheridan should be dropped), an end to the squandering of public money on “the billionaire’s vendetta” (a reference to the £500,000 spent to date on the police investigation), and a public enquiry into the actions of the police, the legal establishment and the Murdoch empire.
So far the campaign — which was launched just before Christmas — has attracted support from George Galloway, RMT General Secretary Bob Crow, Paddy Hill (one of the Birmingham Six), Gerry Conlon (one of the Guildford Four), various leading figures in the Socialist Party (Godrich, Nellist, Bannister, etc.) and the SWP (Rees, German, Bambery, etc.), a few dozen other names which mean nothing to anyone who does not know them personally, and John Palmer.
Even allowing for the fact that Tory politicians such as Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken have been jailed for perjury, it seems fair enough to assume that there was an element of “singling out” in the decision to launch a perjury investigation after the 2006 trial. To that extent the campaign in defence of Sheridan has a point when it raises the charge of a “witch-hunt” against Sheridan.
On the other hand, Sheridan has increasingly become a celebrity figure (performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, and running his own radio show) with only residual ties to political activism. And the split in the SSP was very much a product of Sheridan’s self-centred decision to initiate legal proceedings against the News of the World. Sheridan’s trial will therefore hardly be a case of “socialism on trial”.
Sheridan is arguably entitled to some degree of sympathy, and maybe even support. Sheridan has not been charged with recklessly splitting the SSP. He has been charged with committing perjury in a libel trial involving the News of the World.
But hyping up Sheridan as the latest socialist martyr, in the manner of the remnants of “Solidarity”, makes no sense at all.
Whatever the outcome of an eventual perjury trial later this year, it will not turn the clock back. If Sheridan were to be found guilty of perjury, for example, it would not undo the split in the SSP and reverse the SSP’s loss of its MSPs in the 2007 elections. A guilty verdict will not undo the damage which has been done already.
Sheridan’s trial, when it eventually takes place, is sure to receive an equal amount of publicity. In fact, it is likely to be the media event of the year (at least in Scotland). But it is difficult to believe that the credibility of the left as a whole, after a week of mud-slinging in court, is not going emerge from the trial rather weaker than it was at the outset of the trial.