For many Sheridan was, indeed still is, the conscience of the Scottish Parliament and he is written about approvingly by Tony Benn in one of his many volumes of diaries. At my former workplace many colleagues were Sheridan supporters (apparently the count in Glasgow at the last Scottish Parliament election saw the bulk of SSP votes coming from middle class parts of Glasgow – an interesting phenomenon). Aside from a tendency to overindulge on sunbeds leading to a David Dickinson type orange glow (and something whhich Sheridan himself could joke about) the general public was unaware of anything untoward.
It is unsurprising for Sheridan to appear in the newspaper headlines. However, in recent months his appearances on the front pages have become increasingly bizarre. It appears that we are witnessing the downfall of one of Scotland’s most charismatic politicians.
Over a year ago Scotland on Sunday published a story claiming that a journalist, Anvar Khan (her evidence in the subsequent defamation action is summarised here and here), had written a story alleging that she had had an ongoing affair with one MSP. A quick internet search revealed one name in connection with the story and various rumours (many of which have not resurfaced and which appear of doubtful veracity). At that time Sheridan was leader of the SSP and he resigned some months later. The resignation was to spend more time with his family, a formula which provoked remarkably little cynicism in the cosy clique of Scottish political reporting at the time.
The SSP in typical SSP fashion formed a co-operative leadership where each MSP acted as joint leader, apart from Sheridan. Eventually Colin Fox assumed the leadership.
Sheridan then initiated a defamation action against the News of the World and rumours began to circulate about SSP infighting (which seems inevitable in parties of the left) and it became apparent that fearful of the potential impact of the action on their party senior SSP members were urging Sheridan to drop his defamation action. Then in recent weeks the stories became more peculiar. Firstly, the SSP refused to reveal party minutes pertaining to Sheridan’s resignation in the defamation action. The refusal was in contempt of court and led to the jailing of a senior member, Alan McCombes. He was released a couple of days later but in the interim an astonishing statement was issued by Sheridan.
This statement claimed he had been hounded out of the leadership of the SSP, that the SSP was becoming a gender obsessed discussion group, and that he was not involved in woman-trafficking, not a drug dealer, and did not regularly use prostitutes. As a member of the public I was astonished. I’d read on-line some rumours but nothing to this effect. The defamation action then took on new importance. It was apparent that Sheridan was fighting for his political future, and that those that had warned him in the SSP were correct, this was an action which would determine the future of the SSP.
Since the action started the stories have been faithfully reported by the media. The newspapers and TV stations appear to have special Sheridan reporters on standby.
Although never a supporter of the SSP I admired the manner in which Sheridan irritated the established parties. However, I had never drawn to him as his individual. He struck me as a man with a remarkable capacity for self-promotion. His charisma was undeniable. Watching his political downfall in nightly snippets, as he clutches his wife’s hand on the way into court – the knuckles seemingly whiter each day, is for him a personal tragedy, but for the viewer and reader compelling.
The full story of the action to date (there’s still probably another week and a half of this) can be found on the BBC news website.
From the beginning it became apparent that key witnesses were SSP activists (including the same McCOmbes who gave evidence for the newspaper) – including throught subsequent days (aside from hearing from the editor of the paper).
For Sheridan the nature of the stories is such that I suspect that even if he wins the case (and he has still to present his evidence) his credibility as a political figure is shot. Applying Alistair Campbell’s dictum, as he has been on the front of the papers for more than a week with stories that damage him, whether true or not, politically he’s finished.
From my perspective, the SSP is in a similar position. Sheridan was their biggest asset. Others that they tried to promote (including Rosie Kane) embarrassed themselves by being hopelessly out of their depth when interviewed by Scottish newscasters or in appearances on Question Time. This failure to separate party and person means that the fortunes of the SSP are tied closely to their only true begetter. And like Owen’s SDP, the end of the leader may not formally end the party but will surely prevent the party being a relevant force in the run up to next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. The effects are being seen already. The SSP is polling only 1 % in opinion polls. Oblivion beckons.