This article is from 2007.
Solidarity leader Tommy Sheridan is full of fighting spirit as he prepares to enter the Fringe fray, finds Mark Fisher
‘Stitched up,’ screams the Daily Record beneath a front page picture of a grinning Tommy Sheridan with a great gash on his face. ‘Tommy gets one in the eye,’ says the Sun. I have missed both papers this morning, so it’s a surprise when the ex-MSP comes to the door of his Cardonald semi sporting a shiner that glows even brighter than his famed orange tan.
‘Obviously you don’t read the Record and the Sun,’ chirps his wife, the glamorous Gail, in her British Airways livery as she heads to work, their two-year-old daughter Gabrielle in tow. ‘Don’t bother buying them.’
Life chez Sheridan might be on a more domestic footing since he lost his seat in the May elections (the house is spotlessly tidy in spite of all the toddler toys), but he clearly hasn’t lost his knack of attracting publicity. His black eye is the result of a pro-celebrity boxing bout in which he was pitted against Roddy Collins, a sparring partner for an ex-world champion, instead of the intended Gordon Smith, the new Scottish Football Association boss and a considerably less formidable opponent. It was a mismatch that sent the Solidarity leader to the Southern General Hospital.
Like Tony Blair, that other charismatic politician, Sheridan is squaring up to living a life outside the current affairs spotlight. Whichever way Blair’s career unfolds, however, it surely won’t involve him climbing into the boxing ring. Sheridan, by contrast, is still a fighter. ‘The boy was too big and strong for him,’ says Sheridan’s trainer dropping by for a cup of tea. ‘But he trains well. He puts 110% into it. And he bleeds well, let’s put it that way.’
Now 43, Sheridan is a man who rolls with the punches. True, his vanity has been pricked by his bruised eye (he refuses to have photographs taken until the shiner has faded), but it won’t stop him getting back in the ring. It’s the same with his public career.
Lesser men would have been humbled by the court battle in which he successfully sued the News of the World for defamation after the newspaper alleged he’d attended sex parties in Glasgow and Manchester. Sheridan, on the other hand, makes a joke of it. You have to admire his brass neck for choosing ‘King of the Swingers’ as the theme tune for his Sunday morning chat show on Edinburgh’s Talk 107.
That song quickly segues into a sample of Robert Lindsay shouting ‘power to the people’ in Citizen Smith, the sitcom about the ridiculously ineffectual Tooting Popular Front, followed by John Lennon singing ‘Working Class Hero’. It’s as if Sheridan is at once celebrating and laughing at his public image, neither denying his reputation as an outspoken man of the people nor taking it too seriously. Where other politicians are cautious, Sheridan is up front. The advert for The Tommy Sheridan Chat Show, his Fringe debut, brazenly jokes about ‘Scotland’s sunbed socialist’, recommending you ‘bring your own sun cream’.
‘I used to be criticised for being a “sunbed socialist”,’ he says, settling onto the couch in his front room. ‘It was as if this was an inherent criticism. It must mean you’re a weaker socialist than anybody else. But if you walk either way from this house, you will encounter three or four sunbed centres and they’re always mobbed. They’re full of working-class people. I don’t mind laughing at it, but it was ridiculous terminology to try to undermine me.’
If people still want to caricature him, he says he’s broad enough in the shoulders to take it all. ‘I’ve been called quite a few things in my life, but it’s not as if I’ve had a silver spoon existence. You’re raised in a housing scheme, you play football most of your life, and if you cannae take the piss out of yourself, don’t go into a dressing room, don’t play football and don’t think that you’re above anybody. All of that gives me an attitude to life which is to try and have a sense of perspective.’
In flattering black T-shirt, trousers and shoes, and a Hollywood-style tan topped up on recent trips to Miami and Tenerife, Sheridan has the matinee idol looks – and much of the charm – of a George Clooney. Admittedly, Clooney wouldn’t be drinking coffee from a Che Guevara mug nor giving me the one with James Connolly on it. Neither would he have a bust of Lenin on top of the telly. But you can imagine the actor learning a trick or two from the smooth way Sheridan remembers your name and peppers it throughout the conversation. In some politicians this would seem cynical, but with Sheridan it seems like a genuine attempt to make a connection.
This is borne out by an anecdote a friend tells me. A few years ago, her house was used for a meeting of Scotland’s political leaders, none of whom she knew. All of them were so wrapped up in their little political world that they paid her no attention at all. The exception was Sheridan, who went out of his way to talk to her and to play with her son. It’s only what you’d expect a normal human being to do when entering a stranger’s house – it doesn’t make him a saint – but Sheridan was alone in behaving that way.
It’s true he has a tendency to give a politician’s answers. When I ask him if power ever went to his head, he sidesteps the personal details for a five-minute reply about the disaster of Blair’s premiership. Somehow this seems less like evasiveness than the habit of a seasoned speech-maker and, when pushed further, he makes an honest attempt to deal with the question of life after the Scottish parliament.
‘For the first time in 15 years I don’t get up in the morning with a set agenda of meetings and reading reports,’ he says. ‘When you’re an elected politician, particularly of the left, the media is always looking for a quote to balance up a story. I used to be a convenient conveyor belt for the other perspective. Now you read the newspapers and it’s frustrating because you wish you were involved. Politics is so exciting just now. Sometimes people genuinely don’t know the outcome of debates. I feel disappointed not to be part of that, but on the other hand, I can get on with my life. I definitely feel freer as an individual. For 15 years, I’ve been public property; now I’ve got some freedom to pursue other aspects of life.’
So does this mean the end of his parliamentary career? Defeated or not, he is still the leader of the party that polled more votes than the other left wing parties put together. ‘I would hope not to be away forever,’ he says. ‘But I have to be realistic enough to understand that the next election is four years away. I’ve got a beautiful wee two-year-old, I’ve got a wife who’s working part time and doesn’t want to go back full time, so I need to earn money.’
Although planned before his election defeat, The Tommy Sheridan Chat Show is the next step on the road to a new career. His guests will range from stand-up comedians, such as Tam Cowan and Des McLean, to activists, such as Bob Crow of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six. ‘I’d like Paddy Hill to say what it was like being Irish in the 70s, because, through his experience, I want people to think what it’s like being Muslim today,’ he says. ‘And I’d like Bob Crow to talk about trades unionism and the need to organise, but in a relaxed way with fantastic stories. On the left we have a habit of lecturing, almost hectoring, and I do think we have to build bridges to people.’
Ahead of him in December is an appeal by the News of the World against his £200,000 defamation win. After sacking his lawyer the first time around, Sheridan will be defending himself, but he says he won’t give it any thought until he starts brushing up on case law in October. By contrast, the wound caused by the split with the Scottish Socialist Party after party members testified against him is still raw. ‘I was probably the biggest victim of the split with the SSP because personally I lost the seat,’ he says. ‘But I would much rather have lost as a Solidarity candidate than to have won as an SSP candidate. I feel, cleaner, healthier and fresher in Solidarity than I do with some people whose betrayal was unforgivable.’
Never scared to punch above his weight, Sheridan is pugnacious to the last.
The Tommy Sheridan Chat Show, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 668 1633, 4–26 Aug (not 8, 15), 7.15pm, £10–£11 (£6–£7). Previews 1 & 3 Aug, £5.