I’m not unusual – Tommy Sheridan

November 25, 2000

Mr 1:30 does not get in until after two, which means Ms 2pm and Ms 3-brought-forward-to-2 (that’s me) are seen at 2:45, at which point the secretary reminds him about Mr 4pm who insists he was Mr 3 and finally gets rescheduled as Monday’s Mr 2. Though I may be confusing him with Councillor 4:15 who is seen at 4:45 when he can’t hang around any longer, or Mr Waiting-all-Afternoon who finally gives up and goes away. As for Ms 5:30 (who thought she was Ms 5), she won’t be seen until around seven, and only then after a row, and she’s his wife. But more of that later.

The point is, there are good reasons why your correspondent is sitting in an untidy office in Glasgow City Chambers watching Tommy Sheridan being grilled by a student journalist. It’s an unorthodox arrangement, but it does allow me to observe him in a moment of unforced happiness, explaining how Lenin came to power in 1917.

This is the interview with Tommy Sheridan I desperately wanted to avoid.

A brief flashback to the summer of 1992. Saughton Prison. Tommy had not yet founded the Scottish Socialist Party or been returned as the Scottish parliament’s only Socialist MSP, but already he had the whiff of Destiny about him. He had just been elected as a Glasgow councillor, conducting his campaign from jail where he was spending four months for protesting at a warrant sale and putting himself in contempt of court. For two hours I tried to uncover the inner Tommy Sheridan. He explained, politely but firmly, that I was barking up the wrong tree. His experience was collective: he couldn’t talk about himself in isolation because he couldn’t think of himself in isolation. Now, as he was saying, the class struggle…

Fast forward to November 2000. At the age of 37 Sheridan is facing jail again, this time for protesting against Trident and refusing to pay the fine. He has moved on in the intervening years. He now considers Naomi Campbell a potential class warrior. Next month sees the publication of his socialist handbook, Imagine. Gone is the dogma of the old “anyone not with us is against us” hard left. The principles may be fixed, but their application is a matter for dialogue. The rich are still the enemy, but the hated bourgeoisie has been redeemed by “re-proletarianisation”. Sheridan’s working class is a broad church which includes college lecturers, fashion models and orchestral musicians.

Reading Imagine is a schizoid experience. Many of his proposals would gladden liberal consciences across the land: community crèches; round-the-clock child care centres; several years’ paid maternity and paternity leave; and a national minimum wage for full-time carers. But that’s the conservative end of his wish-list. He also foresees the 20 or even ten-hour maximum working week, annual elections via the internet, online referenda to decide all big issues, tobacco available only on prescription, an end to wasteful production of luxury goods for the rich, a quality control system to stop the world’s markets being flooded with cheap trash, Hollywood hacks liberated to write literary masterpieces, an agrarian revolution to oust the giant landowners, a global confederation of socialist states and, as the inevitable consequence of the above, a revolution in human personality.

There are passages where the reader finds herself wondering if the author is a fully paid-up member of the human race.

Of course that’s what we always say about unrepentant Marxists. Once they start talking about ending war and saving the starving we decide that they are: a) on the take, or b) not living in the real world. No-one could accuse Sheridan of the former. He is so anti-materialistic (apart from in the dialectical sense) that last year he took home just £14,400 of the £65,600 he earned. The rest went to the SSP and the upkeep of a community hall in Pollok. But on the charge of unworldliness he might prove more vulnerable. Just don’t expect him to concede it.

“My whole life is based on the idea that I don’t think I’m unusual at all. I think many people are unconscious socialists.”

To get the cheap gag over with quickly, he doesn’t look like your average earthling. It’s something of a journalistic challenge, coining new similes for the colour of Tommy’s skin. The brilliant whites of his eyes in that brown mask are oddly stagy, as if he’s playing in a pre-PC amateur production of Showboat. His opponents accuse him of “sunbed socialism”. “So pithy and pathetic,” he spits. He thinks it looks nice.

He’s the first to mention the word vanity. When he was in prison and the other inmates were getting drugs smuggled in, he was begging his pals for deodorant and aftershave. He likes people to think he’s attractive, for God’s sake. And there are political benefits. “There’s an appeal probably to a female constituency, in the sense that I look quite decent, I look after my appearance, therefore I’m not a nutter. I’m not weird in that I don’t care how I look.”

An anecdote or, as they often seem when Sheridan tells them, a parable. Recently he found himself sharing a train carriage with a group of football supporters travelling to Glasgow for a Scotland game. Spotting him, they started singing “One Tommy Sheridan, there’s only one Tommy Sheridan …” They had seen him on the news after the Faslane court case and were urging him not to pay the fine. “It was a both dead embarrassing and very proud moment.” The white-haired woman sitting next to him remarked that she never thought young people could be inspired by politicians.

He could talk to those boys, he says, in case I’ve missed the point. “I don’t consider myself unusual: I’m a working-class boy with some working-class faults and some working-class advantages.”

But how many working-class boys earning £65,000 give five-sevenths of it away? How many working-class boys made a clenched fist salute as they were sworn in to the Scottish parliament? How many popular Socialist heroes do we currently have in Scotland? There’s only one Tommy Sheridan.

He neither smokes nor, since a precocious binge at the age of 11, does he drink. He tried cannabis as a student but didn’t realise he was supposed to inhale. This claim, so ludicrous on the lips of Bill Clinton, is strangely plausible. There’s something untouched about Tommy, an innocence. I’m not just talking about his politics, his friends can see it when he’s singing karaoke. His confidence has never even been chipped.

Ask about his background and he’ll tell you how happy and loving it was. The first time I heard this I wanted to know what he was hiding, no-one could be that blessed. But maybe that’s his secret. What might render an intelligent man capable of extraordinarily unshakeable idealism? An extraordinarily secure childhood, perhaps.

He was the youngest of three and the only boy. Probably spoiled, he says: not materially but emotionally. His mother and father separated when he was 17. “They were absolutely fantastic parents but I think they weren’t a very good couple.”

His mother, Alice, left school at 14, worked as a cleaner in pubs and clubs, then put herself through college and university to qualify as a social worker. Young Tommy used to hate the unions, his mother was always out at meetings, but gradually he came to share her principles. His father Thomas is a very different character. Less demanding. “Dead nice guy,” people say, “wouldn’t harm a fly.” He, too, shaped Sheridan’s politics. He was president of the local football club, Pollok United: the epitome of a local community activist. Every Friday night he’d be at the laundromat with the strips. Saturday, he’d be sweeping the park. The only reward was seeing his boy play football. He hoped Tommy would play professionally one day.

Politically, Sheridan has his mother’s impatience with the status quo. Personally, he has inherited his father’s easy-going ways. His wife thinks he doesn’t complain enough. “If somebody says they’re going to deliver a telly and they’re two days late, she thinks the riot act should be read.”

Are there ever times when he feels complicated to himself? He does not even hesitate. “No, I think I’m quite a straightforward guy. I don’t think I’m complex at all.”

And yet in Imagine he writes: “Humans are … complex emotional beings capable of experiencing and conveying passion, humour, rage, jealousy, sorrow, love, hatred, sympathy, and a range of other feelings …” So, I challenge Tommy Sheridan to live down to his own definition. Prove to us fallible mortals that you belong on planet Earth.

Whom has he hated in his life? “Thatcher,” predictably. He tells a story about hitting her car with an egg ten years ago. He was arrested by the Special Branch (“a nasty arrest, it was the face down on the ground with the arms up the back and the foot on the back”). Handcuffed and bundled into a police van, he realised he still had a second incriminating egg in his pocket. He hid it under a policeman’s anorak. When they released him he had no money to get home but made a class appeal to the train driver who let him travel for free. We’ll call this parable number two.

Personally, he’s never felt hatred. He’s had a lucky life. His mother once went up to the school to complain because he’d been nicknamed “the long-haired lover from Liverpool” and some of the teachers were taking the mickey, but it didn’t worry him. He was always one of the gang, probably one of the leaders. He could play football, he was reasonably fit. “I never ever felt I was in the position that people were taking the piss out of me.” He has always had a long fuse. People slag him, politicians have a go, but he keeps his cool. “I always remember a wee saying from Lenin: he who loses his temper loses his head.”

Oh come on, surely he must have lost control once in his life? Thinking this over, he makes a curious face, baring his teeth and pouting his lips in a sort of kissy snarl. Eventually he retrieves a memory of getting separated from his comrades on an anti-fascist demonstration and finding himself face-to-face with a fairly well-known right-winger. He lost the place and started kicking into this guy. “Sometimes it may be justified,” he murmurs.

Parable number three.

Asked about jealousy, he becomes a little less guarded, since there is nothing to lose by opening up. “It frustrates Gail a hell of a lot. She’ll tell me that some officer on her plane was chatting her up and has offered to take her out to dinner. She’s quite consciously telling me this to try to make me jealous. I’m saying, ‘I don’t blame them, you’re a good-looking woman’.” He’s hardly got a jealous bone in his body. Although when he sees the other political parties’ apparatus and resources, he does feel a twinge.

What about passion? “Politically …” Yes, yes, that goes without saying. “I think I’ve got personal passion as well. Gail would argue that I’m not passionate enough – that’s fair criticism. She would also argue that I’ve got my moments. If you mix passion with the romance side then I’ve that as well.”

Cynics say that Gail Sheridan is Tommy’s prize political asset: a smart, droll-tongued Glasgow glamour-puss, and a class-fighter to boot. Heroes need to be cut down to size now and again, otherwise they start to look arrogant, but they can’t afford to let their opponents score points. Who better to perform this service than the wife? Before their wedding in June, Gail was interviewed in the Daily Record (until recently Sheridan wrote a column for the paper). Recalling Tommy’s famous clenched fist salute, she said: “He looked like a wee boy, my wee boy, taking his first communion.” (Parable number four.)

But even hardened cynics cannot entirely discount “the romance side”. Once started, he won’t shut up about her. “Gail’s a very warm person, a very giving person, very supportive. Probably that arises from her Catholicism, her upbringing. She’s very working class, very community-oriented, a strong trade unionist…” She was a shop steward during the 1997-8 British Airways strike, when Glasgow had the biggest turn-out of strikers in the UK. All this and she taught him the difference between love and sex too.

By his mid to late twenties he was a bit more responsible, but as a youngster he was very careless with people’s emotions. “I was probably a bit of a male whore. Sex was a form of recreation.” Well, he still thinks of it that way, but it’s deeper, more important and more satisfying with someone you love. Not that he has any hang-ups about people who do it just for fun, he says with a canny eye on the promiscuous vote.

Gail and he have their differences, of course. She’ll take half an hour to get ready if they’re going out for a bag of chips; two hours for a night out. “I think she’s far too vain, and that’s coming from someone who’s quite vain himself. Probably a wee chink in her confidence there about how she looks …”

Then there’s the touchy subject of his working hours. “She can be a right pain in the arse,” he says bluntly. She moans about the lack of time he spends in the house, and the leisure hours he spends playing and watching football. Her attitude is that if she didn’t moan she’d see even less of him. (Just how big a bone of contention this is I am about to discover for myself.) She’s not very pleased about him giving up half his MSP’s salary either. “It’s probably one of the areas I get upset with her more than anything else: she knew what I was like before we were married. She gets on with it, but she does like to bump her gums about it.”

Around this point I start to worry that Tommy Sheridan might be taking the humanity challenge too far.

He didn’t want to get married. For him it was just a piece of paper, a societal stamp of approval. He believes all family units are equally valid, as long as the binding agent is love. But after eight years of having it his way, he felt he owed her something. He offered to take a couple of friends to Cuba and tie the knot quietly, throw a party in Glasgow when they got home. It didn’t quite happen that way.

“When she spoke at the wedding Gail took great delight in reminding the audience of that particular conversation in order to rub my nose in it. She agreed at the time in order to hoodwink me into the sort of marriage she’d always wanted.”

At quarter to five the logistical nightmare that is Sheridan’s diary pulls him away to another meeting, leaving me ample time to inventory the office he shares with his political assistant Keith Baldasarra. Several agitprop posters. Framed photographs of Tommy, Gail, and various relatives. A mock-up of the Sunday Mail showing him having his football shorts pulled-down. A bookshelf with copies of Whitaker’s Almanack, Roget’s Thesaurus, Culture Shock Cuba, and Manumission: The Movie (“Is it a porn film or a seminal work on club culture?” The Guardian). There’s a cluster of thank-you cards on the filing cabinets (“I finally got my husband’s jacket and teeth back after nine weeks, I’m being compensated for the other clothes that went adrift…”).

An hour later Tommy returns, full of apologies, but before we resume he has to phone home. Gail is not happy. She was expecting him at five. The sharpness in her voice carries across the room. Sheridan mumbles placatingly into the telephone, explaining that he’s with a journalist, in fact “she wants to ask you some questions.” This is news to me. The next thing I know there’s a smoking receiver in my hand and a furious woman on the other end of the line. Sheridan has vanished.

The last thing Gail Sheridan wants to discuss is her husband’s sterling qualities. (“Right now I don’t think I could give you an answer because he’s a bloody pain in the neck.”) But politeness gets the better of her and gradually she calms down. As he knew she would.

I can now report that Tommy Sheridan does his share of the housework, irons his own shirts, but won’t touch DIY. When there’s football on the telly, she could be doing the dance of the seven veils and it wouldn’t distract him, but they’re a compatible couple. They say girls go for men who remind them of their daddies. “I’ve immense respect for my dad, if anybody battered you he was the protector. I feel like that with Tommy. He’ll face Goliath. He has no fear of anything and therefore I always feel dead protected that way.”

She rejects any suggestion that he is not of this world. “He’s very much like other people.” He doesn’t drink, but then he doesn’t need to. It can be 5am at a party, with everybody else in the room absolutely plastered, and Tommy will still be on his feet with the karaoke mike, working his way through the back catalogue of Rod Stewart and Elton John. Most people need a drink to make an absolute clown of themselves, Tommy can do it stone cold sober.

At this point he walks back into the office. She recommends that I cover my ears “or you’ll hear me blaspheming”. When he finally puts the phone down he looks chastened: “That’s me given a row.” They were supposed to be buying his sister’s birthday cake at Tesco.

The Scottish Socialist Party was formed in February 1999. Three months later they took two per cent of the Scottish vote. They now have 2,500 members. It’s a modest start but Sheridan has big plans. He was greatly encouraged by the passing of his bill to abolish warrant sales earlier this year. Labour has delayed implementation until 2003, to find an alternative way of attaching movable assets, but that’s the dirty end of politics for you. His current project is a policy to replace council tax with a redistributive Scottish Service Tax. (A random example: Stagecoach millionaire Brian Souter’s annual bill would rise from £1,516 to £82,000.)

He predicts that within ten years his party will have 20-30 MSPs. Once they’re a parliamentary force to be reckoned with, they’ll attract left-wing defectors from other parties. People like Margo MacDonald, he hopes. He is confident that he will see an independent Socialist Scotland in his lifetime. And then comes that revolution in human personality. It’ll take a while, he concedes. But look at Cuba: a whole generation raised without the “me, myself, I” ethic; people who prioritise family, friendship, solidarity. He’s seen for himself how much warmer they are. One day Scotland could be like that.

It’s a seductive vision. I can’t quite believe in it myself, but I’m glad that one of our 129 MSPs does. In Imagine, Tommy Sheridan quotes Oscar Wilde: “Show me a map without Utopia on it and I’ll show you a map that’s not worth looking at.” It’s as good an explanation as any for the boys who sing his name on trains.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications