Imagine peace, imagine anti-capitalism: Interview with Scottish MP Tommy Sheridan
by Anna Battista
"No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot." John MacLean, Speech from the Dock, Edinburgh, May 9, 1918
"That was a brilliant line!" a young, skinny man enthusiastically exclaims, patting his back. "You were great!" another adds, nodding and shaking his hand, while a distant voice along the corridor of the Parliament office building in Edinburgh can be heard echoing, "Aye, he was good…" Member of the Scottish Parliament Tommy Sheridan smiles and says a shy thanks to all the people who keep on stopping him along the corridors to congratulate with him. Today will not only be remembered as the day of Tony Blair's visit to Edinburgh, but also as the day of the Scottish Parliament debate about war on Iraq. Actually today was also the day of Tommy Sheridan's speech in the Parliament: the line "wake up and smell your oil" is still hanging in the air when I meet Tommy in the Parliament offices.
"I think that more and more people are beginning to be angry about the fact that Tony Blair is effectively turning the UK into the 51st state of America," Tommy tells me when we finally manage to find a quiet spot in the Parliament canteen. "He has been labelled 'Bush's poodle' and, though in many respects I don't like personal denigration, that is an accurate description of him because everyone else in the world is saying they don't support Bush's warmongering politics apart from Tony Blair who is hanging on Bush's coat tails and wants to be the spokesperson for the USA. Nobody in the USA elected Tony Blair and very few elected George Bush. You see, we are talking about overthrowing tyrants and dictators, maybe we should begin with presidents who were elected with a minority of the people as George Bush was."
"As a member of the Parliament, I'm offended at Tony Blair using this country as a puppet of the USA. I think we'll have to challenge that because, undoubtedly, this whole conflict is about America's desire for the control of Iraq's oil reserves, it's not about weapons of mass destruction. If it was, then why aren't they making war on Pakistan or India? And if it was a conflict against a country breaching a UN resolution, then why aren't they invading Israel? The CIA has admitted that Al Qaeda is active in 60 countries of the world, but not in Iraq, so, if it was a war on terrorism, why would they want to start it there?"
Tommy pauses, the lights of the canteen reflect on the black and white symbol of the peace he's wearing on his lapel and make it shine, then he continues, "Anti-war protests are very useful because it is vital that those people who are against war, those who believe in peace, display it. It is important for them to have an opportunity to take it to the streets, it is important to have an opportunity to say 'Not in my name', because the UK government is unleashing hell on the people of Iraq saying that they are operating on behalf of the people of this country and I don't think they are, so I think the demonstrations aren't only useful, they are absolutely essential."
Italian philosopher Toni Negri and American writer Gore Vidal often refer to the USA as the new "Empire", and Tommy doesn't seem to disagree with them. "That's definitely a good definition for the USA," Tommy claims, "The USA are a latter day Roman Empire spreading their influence through a combination of bribery and blackmail. America wants to impose its will. That's one reason why I support Cuba, because it's a wee country that for 42 years has withstood an illegal and very damaging blockade of medicines and economic supplies, but Cuba is a country that puts people first rather than profits," Tommy concludes.
"In a socialist Scotland, this culture of deference to the rich and powerful will be dissolved. Just as capitalism set out to abolish 'the divine right of kings', socialism will set out to abolish the divine right of bankers, shareholders, and stockbrokers. The needs of society as a whole will eventually be elevated above convention, tradition, and sentiment." Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, Imagine
Poet William Wordsworth believed children were somehow in touch with God, because the memory of life before birth was stronger in them than in adults. As a consequence, children could grasp the meaning of the universe and enjoy a blessed existence, not yet corrupted by reason. Usually, politicians or people who are involved in politics start their career with the enthusiasm of kids; then, as time passes, they become the most cynical human beings on earth. When Tommy Sheridan talks, you can see in his eyes a special light, probably similar to the light Wordsworth claimed you could see in children's eyes. In Tommy's case it is almost a childish belief in a vision of a new socialist world. This belief is also what stands behind his book Imagine: A Socialist Vision for the 21st Century (Rebel Inc., 2000), co-written with the Scottish Socialist Voice founding editor Alan McCombes.
One of the chapters is actually entitled "The Tartan Revolution", but, no worries here, we're not talking about a coup d'état Tommy and the Scottish Socialist Party are planning to carry out. "There is a rediscovery in Scotland of national identity, people are realising that we may be small, but we're still a country, and, though tiny, we're still significant in a big world stage," Tommy explains. "We could be a beacon of social justice, we could be a beacon of tolerance, we could hopefully be a beacon of friendship for asylum seekers or for people fleeing persecution. In the course of the book we tried to get people to think big: politics should be more than just how high interest rates are and how high inflation is, it should be about how to run your life. The 'tartan revolution' is trying to encourage Scotland to take up the banner of an independent socialist Scotland. We don't just support independency: we want an independent country, but we want a country that puts people before profit, that raises the standard and quality of life of all its citizens and we also want our citizens to be citizens, which means that we don't want another monarchy."
Scotland might want its independency, but it is still part of the UK and, consequently, of the EU, though a lot of British citizens oppose the whole concept of Europe. "I think there is less of a European identity across the UK as a whole than there is in Europe," Tommy admits, "We in the UK, particularly as a legacy of Thatcher, Major and the Tories, were quite an anti-European country. I have a vision of an independent socialist Scotland where we're part of Europe, but not subsumed by Europe, a vision in which we're part of Europe to the extent that we build friendship and solidarity. But, in the end, I would want to be a lot more disobedient of the European Union because it is a set up, it is clearly a vehicle for the free market to spread across Europe. If we would enter into the spirit of the European Union, then I don't think we would be able to carry a social programme, because our social programme is to invest in things like steel or shipbuilding, but to do that you have to subsidise, and under the rules of the European Union you can't subsidise because that would be unfair competition. So I have worries about the future of the European Union in its current context."
Tommy might be suspicious about the European Union, but he's well keen on giving a few advices to the Italian left wing politicians who are at present trying to find a long lost unity to stand up against Silvio Berlusconi's centre right wing government. "My appeal to the Italian left would be to rationally consider what unites the majority of the left," Tommy states, "my appeal would be to try and secure unity around a majority programme and to adopt what I would call the 80/20 principle. If there are 80% of policies and ideas on which the left can unite and agree upon, then it will be possible to discuss the other 20% in the pub or the café or the meeting room. We will never secure socialism if the left is not united. How can we secure socialism by uniting the working class of any of our countries for social change when we can't even unite the socialists? So my appeal to the Italian left is to look up at the principal issues of public ownership, democratic control, the ideal of opposition to the free market, opposition to war, support for disarmament, and secure unity around these issues."
In Tommy's words, the solution for the Italian left wing coalition's problems seems to be easily found, in the same way as he seems to have found an answer for those who keep on calling the Scottish Socialist Party a "fringe party." "I think it is important to recognise that every majority in society usually starts as a minority," Tommy underlines, "When we're called a 'fringe party' it is because we only have one MSP out of 129. It is a reasonable accusation in one sense, in the sense that we only have one elected member, but we have only come up four years of age so we are the youngest political party in Scotland and in that short space of time we have managed to create quite an important impact and a lot of support. I think that after the next elections we will go from one MSP to four or more. We might even get as many as eight or nine, but the truth is, we'd still be a fringe party, because there are 129 members in the Scottish Parliament. I would say that the definition 'fringe party', although accurate, isn't really helpful and descriptive, because you could argue that you could have three quarters of the seats and you would still be fringe. However, I think after the next elections we will get a bigger credibility. Labour lost a lot of votes, but they started from a very very high plateau, so they lost a significant number of votes but not enough to allow them to lose a significant number of seats. If you had a wee graph and you looked at the Labour votes in 1992, then in 1997, 1999 and 2000, you would see that they are in constant decline. There are seats in Glasgow that used to have a 12,000 or a 14,000 majority, they're now down to a 5,000 majority. After the next elections I think they will be down to maybe a 2,000 majority."
The next Scottish elections are a month away and Tommy has already got in mind the SSP programme. "After the elections we want to introduce a series of bills: as first thing we want to abolish the local tax system which is very unfair and tends to tax the wealthy very little and pensioners and low paid workers very much. We want to introduce our personal income based tax, so that the more money you earn, the more you pay, the less money you earn, the less you pay. Secondly, we want to introduce a free school meals bill so that every child in Scotland who attends a public school qualifies for a nutritionally healthy meal with milk and water and doesn't have to pay for it or apply for a ticket to prove that they are poor enough to get a free meal. Thirdly, we want a minimum wage introduced for the public sector as we want to be able to say that everyone has a decent standard of living. The lowest pay level is £7.32 per hour, currently the minimum wage in this country is £4.20, but we can legislate to introduce a minimum wage that would raise people out of poverty."
"For what regards drugs, if we had the opportunity here in Scotland, we would assume all control over the drug problem. We would immediately legalise cannabis as a step towards breaking the link between heroin, cannabis and other more dangerous drugs, as a way of removing the power of many of the criminal barons who control the cannabis and drug supply. We don't think that cannabis is any more or less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and we think that it is a joke that it remains illegal. We wouldn't promote it, we wouldn't advertise it, but we think it should be legal. We would also allow heroin addicts to be treated inside the National Health Service with prescribed heroin in order to make them manage their lives and try to get them off their habit, instead of leaving them without any help or treatment."
Another issue that concerns Tommy is media regulation. "We don't have any responsibility for the media, we don't regulate the media here in Scotland, we don't even have a Scottish specific edition of news, the BBC news, the British Broadcasting Corporation news, are run from London. We would like national news running from Scotland, but we can't impose it because we don't control the media. The Scottish Parliament might become a monitoring and regulating body for the media in Scotland. As the Scottish Socialist Party we would also love to make our paper, the Scottish Socialist Voice, a more relevant newspaper for Scotland, we would love to make a daily newspaper for Scotland, but we are constantly restrained in what we want to do by the resources. In a lot of European countries there is state support from political parties, and some states support political newspapers as well. We don't have any of that, there is none of that state support, so we have very little resources and we struggle to make ends meet, particularly with only one MP. So, although we have big plans for a newspapers, it will really not be possible to implement it until we get more resources."
Justice is also on the Scottish Socialist Party agenda and Tommy is particularly worried about the miscarriages of justice in the UK. "I suppose we have miscarriages of justice in our country because human beings administer justice and this is one absolutely solid reason why the death penalty should never be reintroduced," Tommy claims, shaking his head, "There are human mistakes, human errors, there is a mixture of conspiracy and cock-up, there are plenty of times when people are framed, there are other times when there are simple mistakes. The Scottish criminal justice system is not perfect, we're far from that, we must have more working class sheriffs and judges and people who come from a different background rather than just the wealthy. I think there are many aspects of the English justice system that are even less safe than ours. Per head of the population you would probably find that there are probably more miscarriages of justice in England than in Scotland. I think the job miscarriages of justice organisations such as MOJO do is good, but what must be done is to improve the criminal justice system, though the Scottish one is not probably the worst."
"Globalisation is essentially two simultaneous races. In one of these races, the participants are the giant companies of the world. Their performances are measured by the amount of profits they can pile up. The ultimate goal of each of these companies is to achieve total global domination in their spheres. The other races involve not corporations but nation-states. But unlike a normal race, which aims to achieve the highest standards possible, this race between nations is a race to achieve the lowest standards possible … The nations that can achieve the harshest working conditions, the lowest wages, the most ruthless forms of exploitation, the longest hours, the most threadbare public services, the most polluted environments, are the winners." Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, Imagine
From Seattle to Prague, from Toronto to Genoa, the movement against globalisation has by now spread its tentacles pushing people from different backgrounds, but with the same beliefs in anti-capitalist principles, to get together and protest. A group of SSP members also went to Florence for the European Forum that took place in November 2002. "As SSP we've constantly and regularly been involved in the social forums and other international events because the SSP has been looked up from a lot of left wing parties across Europe," Tommy points out, "But our difficulty in Scotland is that there are so many powers which are still reserved to Westminster in relation to employment law, investments, pensions, benefits, all of which are affected by globalisation. Globalisation is very much about pursuing free market reform, a free market expansion in all walks of life, it is about private provision and private ownership. Globalisation is a sort of antithesis of what the SSP is all about. I'm anti-globalisation and pro-world development, pro-improvement of people's standard of life, but globalisation doesn't deliver that. Globalisation delivers maximum profit at minimum cost, that's what globalisation is about."
In a speech delivered in 1995, Tony Blair said that the war between classes was over, but this doesn't seem to be true: during many anti-globalisation forums, people manifested against class divisions. "Tony Blair is out of touch with ordinary people's lives," Tommy argues, "Blair and his coterie of friends do not associate themselves with the working classes anymore, if the class war were over, then nobody would tell the employers in this country, who continue to pursue a strategy of more and more work for less and less pay, to try and restrict the working conditions. The current fire fighters' dispute is probably the best example of the fact that the class war is far from being over."
Since Tommy mentioned the fire fighters' strike in Great Britain, other struggles come to mind: the Fiat workers striking in Termini Imerese and in Rome or the "sans papier" manifesting for their rights in France. "I hope that we can connect that type of struggle and that type of dispute, because that's my type of European Union," Tommy claims. "What we want is a people's union across Europe and that means that struggling in Scotland against the multinationals should be linked with struggling in Italy against the multinationals, that's the type of integration and solidarity we have to build. In Scotland we have a federation which organises all the trade unions, it is called the Scottish Trade Union Congress and it organises roughly about 650,000-700,000 workers and they are quite a progressive body, they are very very solid and anti-war, very pro-Palestine and very anti-privatisation. We have a progressive trade union federation that has not yet broken with New Labour, but the ties are becoming very precarious, very slim."
"New leaders will emerge. And the men - of the receptive ears and the outstretched hands - will need leaders who emerge from the ranks of people, just as leaders have emerged in all revolutions." Fidel Castro, In Tribute To Che
Tommy was ever present during the anti-war demonstrations that took place last year and this year in Glasgow. During the protests it wasn't unusual to see young people carrying banners portraying Che Guevara. Often young people look for new political leaders or heroes. Tommy has got his own heroes: "I think everybody has their own inspiration, sometimes it can be your mother or your father or your uncle or brother and sister. Politically speaking, I had several inspirations in my life: from Scottish political history I got as inspiration John MacLean who inspired me to be incorruptible. But I also have other historical figures who inspired me such as Che Guevara, Lenin, Trotsky, Karl Marx. They were all heroes for me in different ways, sometimes heroes for their ideas and ability to think differently, Guevara for a combination of not only thinking differently, but acting differently as well. He was incorruptible, believed in a new world and was prepared to try and put his own life in line to fight for a new world. That's why he's an inspirational hero for young people throughout the world."
If Guevara is a legendary man for many people, Tommy is often considered by the press a controversial figure. "I think it's more of a media label than a reality", he states. "I see myself as a man who speaks the truth. I lead quite an ordinary, probably very boring, life. I speak to citizens in the train, or in the shops or in the streets. They don't avoid speaking to me as if I am an untouchable. The reason why the media see me as controversial is because I speak my mind, because I stand up for things I believe in. But that's what politicians should do and personally I think more politicians should have the courage of backing up their convictions. The political establishment exists to try and use up everybody and corrupt them either politically or financially, but I think that if you have got strong beliefs, strong principles and you have an ideology, then it is possible to resist. If you don't have strong beliefs, ideology and ideals, you can easily become simply another one who has been bought off and forgot why he came into politics. Most people who are socialist usually come into politics because they want to change the world, but the older they get the less of the world they want to change. I think it's possible to still maintain your spirit and your principles, though it can be difficult, no doubt about it. Somebody once told me and it always stuck with me, 'If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything'."
Tommy's final words call back to mind John MacLean's words in his final speech. "I think John MacLean's speech in 1918, in this city, in the Edinburgh High Court which is a stone's throw from here, is as relevant today as it was then," Tommy nods, "If I was to stand as the accuser of anything, I would stand as the accuser of capitalism 'dripping with blood from head to toe' as John MacLean said then in reference to the fact that we were involved in World War I which was about markets, about profits and led to the carnage and loss of millions of lives. If I were asked to accuse anything today in relation to the problems of racism or intolerance, I would accuse the capitalist system, because capitalism breeds all these things. Capitalism needs the classes to be divided and it needs intolerance of race, of creed, of religion, it needs to breed contempt and division and of course it needs to breed poverty in order to frame people and that's why I'm a socialist, because I'm anti 'the market', I'm anti-capitalism and I think that's the unity we have to build in the left, the new left must be based on anti-capitalism." Tommy concludes and smiles.
His smile becomes even broader when asked if appearing on Jasmine Minks' single "Daddy Dog" released on ex-Creation supremo Alan McGee's Poptones was another way to fight capitalism. "Well, I suppose you've got to communicate to people!" he laughs, "Use any mode of communication, that's the truth of the matter!" Subcomandante Marcos, the man behind the EZLN, supports a new concept of revolution, a revolution made with words, ideas and hopes, a bloodless revolution that requires only one thing, to act, to communicate with whatever means you have and reach as many people as possible. Perhaps this is what Tommy Sheridan is doing, bearing in mind that "we are into the next war if capitalism lasts," as John MacLean pointed out in his speech.