Shortly after I came back to Scotland in 1996, I saw Tommy Sheridan speak at a rally in Glasgow’s George Square. I had been in England for seven years so had largely missed the poll tax marches and his six months incarceration for trying to block a warrant sale. I don’t remember what the rally was in aid of; just the impression he created. With his black leather jacket and self-conscious Che Guevara pose, he was, frankly, irresistible.
Later, as an MSP for the Scottish Socialist Party, his appeal endured. You wouldn’t have wanted him to lead the country, obviously, but – like Dennis Skinner – it was good to have him there on the periphery campaigning on issues such as the abolition of poindings. A belligerent Jiminy Cricket, he sat on Holyrood’s shoulder, reminding it to always let its conscience be its guide.
How long ago those days seem now. The days before Sheridan’s ego parted company with his convictions; before the swinger allegations, before he became abusive towards the women who gave evidence against him, before his perjury conviction and his jail sentence. The days before he helped form Hope Over Fear, a shouty, Bro-centric vehicle for his rehabilitation and, some would say, a blight on the wider Yes movement.
Now, to consolidate his position on the paranoid fringes, Sheridan is set to front an online video programme on Sputnik, the Russian propaganda platform. With impeccable timing he made the announcement just as the UK government identified two Russian nationals as suspects in the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Introducing himself to viewers with customary modesty, he compared himself to that other great socialist firebrand, Oscar Wilde, and pledged to bring them stories ignored by the dreaded MSM. Unlike all those other self-serving politicians, Sheridan said, his integrity was priceless and his principles non-negotiable. Those principles he hadn’t traded in for a chance of preserving his image as a steadfast family man, at least.
Sheridan is, of course, following in the footsteps of Alex Salmond who hosts a weekly chat show on TV network Russia Today (RT) – the non-thinking man’s answer to the “problem” of alleged BBC bias. Fed up of Auntie’s unionist leanings? Why not tune into the outlets that pioneered fake news and so opened the door to Brexit and Donald Trump?
It takes a degree in cognitive dissonance to present a state-owned propaganda machine for a regime that annexed Crimea, propped up Bashar al-Assad’s regime and persecutes gay people as a promoter of social equality, and a hopeless naivete to believe that an operation that exists to undermine faith in the establishment is genuinely invested in Scotland’s independence (think how it has treated nationalist movements within its own borders).
But Sheridan assured his public that Sputnik was a censorship-free zone. There’s no way a man o’ independent mind like Julian Assange-supporting Citizen Tommy would be used as Vladimir Putin’s mouthpiece. This is the same Citizen Tommy who called the Salisbury poisoning “a pile of pish” and was last week RT-ing tweets suggesting images of the suspects were photoshopped by MI5.
The interesting thing about Sheridan’s new role, however, has been the mixed reaction to both it and RT from Yessers. Admittedly, he has supporters, most of whom can be found on his timeline, cheering him on with messages such as “Gaun yersel, Tommy – the past is the past”. Similarly, SNP MP Angus MacNeil vowed to continue appearing on RT, despite the government announcement, saying the best way to counter propaganda was to go on and give a “counter message”. But elsewhere there seems to be an incipient backlash towards both the Russian outlets and the wilder elements of the independence movement in general.
In March last year, it was revealed SNP MPs had made 50 appearances on RT where fees are up to £1,000 an hour (they weren’t alone, of course; Labour and Tory MPs made appearances, too). To be fair, Nicola Sturgeon has always been opposed. When Salmond began his show, she criticised his decision and insisted the party had “regularly expressed concern over actions by the Russian government, including reports of persecution on the grounds of race and sexuality, attacks on journalists and concerns about the integrity of the democratic process.”
Despite pressure from some quarters, the SNP leadership has also always accepted that the most plausible explanation for what happened in Salisbury was either that it was a “direct action of the Russian authorities” or that the Russian government had “lost control of the nerve agent and it fell into the hand of others.”
But last week the party’s stance seemed to harden. Agreeing the Russian state was “demonstrably implicated” in the attack, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford branded RT a “vehicle of the Russian state” and said he didn’t believe anyone should broadcast on it.
But the most explosive response came from SNP Westminster spokesman on defence Stewart McDonald, who visited Ukraine earlier this year and called out Sheridan in a series of Tweets.
“Many of those [who are] ‘denied’ platforms elsewhere and find themselves on Sputnik are holodomor deniers, conspiracy theorists and cranks,” he said. “Decent-minded people should body-swerve it. Then again, a perjurer and a fake news agency are made for each other,” he wrote.
Sheridan’s response was to compare himself to William Wallace, betrayed by his own side, and to suggest such criticism played into the hands of the unionists. Some of those you would expect to defend him did.
But elsewhere there was a discernible change in the temperature; a subtle scent of something new in the air. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s there on social media: a growing embarrassment with the kinds of people who use #falseflag hashtags and claim elections with low turn-outs are rigged (but only if they lose); the kinds of people who see a plot in every BBC headline and who engage in Twitter pile-ons whipped up – wittingly or unwittingly – by the likes of Wings Over Scotland.
There must be a growing recognition that it is this kind of behaviour – not McDonald’s – that plays into the hands of unionists, who use it to suggest sections of the independence movement are unhinged. Given at the IndyRef, 53% of men voted Yes, while 57% of women voted No, it should also be clear male-dominated events and all-male panels probably aren’t the way forward.
In the past, there has been a reluctance on the part of MPs and MSPs to speak out too openly for fear of alienating supporters. But it would be good if McDonald’s intervention marked the start of something bigger: a sort of concerted effort to jettison the aggressive, off-putting patterns of behaviour and present a more positive, unified, inclusive and palatable version of the movement to those whose votes it needs to win.