Twenty-five years ago this coming Monday, on May 6, 1999, Tommy Sheridan was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) member for Glasgow.

Sheridan had, so to speak, set the heather alight by showing that a firebrand socialist could be elected to such public office under the proportional representation system used for the regional list seats. In doing so, he became the bright young hope of the radical left in Scotland, with its key aims of socialism and independence.

Four years later, he was joined by another five successful SSP colleagues in the May 2003 elections. At this time, the SSP had 3,000 members: the equivalent of 30,000 in England.

Most will recall the beginnings of the fratricidal implosion of the SSP just 18 months later. So, on November 9, 2004, the SSP’s very own "9/11" happened: Sheridan was alleged by the News of the World to be a sex swinger. Following a spectacular court victory by Sheridan against the Murdoch-owned newspaper in August 2006 for defamation, Sheridan left the SSP to form the Solidarity party.

Sheridan pledged to "destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me": those being the witnesses (including four SSP MSPs) who testified against him when called to do so by the News of the World. Come the May 2007 Holyrood elections, none of the six socialists was re-elected.

It seemed to be a case of "The Joy of Six", as the SSP’s newspaper greeted the 2003 election, being completely wiped out by "The Joy of Sex" as the famous sex education manual of 1972 was entitled.

As the implosion gathered pace, many left the SSP, rejoining Labour or moving to the SNP and Greens. Sheridan was jailed in 2011 for committing perjury and Solidarity no longer exists, having been wound up and its fragments entering Alba. The SSP soldiers on. Despite the temporary membership boost after the September 18, 2014 referendum, it is still a shadow of its former self.

Twenty-five years on now, though not unimportant, the most useful lessons to be learned about the SSP are not about how it fell apart but, rather, about how it came together and grew.

This is because these lessons may hold the key as to whether a pro-independence socialist party, whether the SSP or not, can rise again in the new developing political situation of an approaching right-wing Labour Westminster government and an increasingly prostrate SNP.

Necessary but not sufficient in itself was that much of the radical left in Scotland united through the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA). It was the first indication that a realignment was taking place in Scottish left politics. The main force behind it was Scottish Militant Labour (SML), led by Sheridan and his then close collaborator, Alan McCombes.


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SML had begun to work with others on the left in a productive and fraternal way. Stressing bigger common aims rather than concentrating upon much smaller political differences led a wide array of people from the Labour left, SNP left, Communist Party fragments and community campaigners to come together to work with SML. They formed the SSA in February 1996.

Sheridan and five other SML candidates had also been elected to Glasgow City Council. Sheridan’s own election for the Pollok ward occurred in 1992 when he was in Saughton jail in Edinburgh for defying a court order over protesting against warrant sales to collect poll tax debts. He was then re-elected twice more for Pollok. And with minds focused by the coming return of the Scottish Parliament, it was felt the forward momentum was now great enough to make a serious pitch for representation there.

The Herald: Tommy Sheridan leading a poll tax protestTommy Sheridan leading a poll tax protest (Image: Newsquest)

So, on September 20, 1998, the SSA decided to form a new political party called the SSP, launched on February 21, 1999. But while necessary, the formation of the SSP was not sufficient in itself to enable it to make the breakthrough.

The success of the campaign to defeat the hated Tory poll tax continued to provide credibility to the radical left. It was then continued by community-based campaigning on water charges, nuclear weapons and road building. Sheridan was at the head of this, speaking to so many public meetings that he had little home life. In Parliament, he showed he could work with others to change legislation through Private Member’s Bills - the case of the abolition of warrant sales carried out by bailiffs being the most obvious.

All this was then aided to by the SNP undergoing a confidence crisis. Even before Alex Salmond stood down as leader in 2000, many in the SNP felt the Scottish Parliament was a bear trap where devolution was a bulwark against independence. This spoke to the internal SNP battle between its "gradualists" and the "fundamentalists". In the 1999 elections, the SNP only won 35 MSPs.

Labour under Blair was pushing forward on its "new" Labour, neo-liberal course. There was very little in the way of "clear red water" between Scottish and British Labour under Dewar, McLeish and McConnell. The scene was set for the entry of more SSP new "kids on the block" come the May 2003 Scottish Parliament elections.

What parallels can we find in the situation today? The SNP is again divided and in the doldrums, Sarwar and Starmer are very much Blair 2.0, and the independence movement not only needs re-invigorating but re-calibrated to concentrate upon campaigning to end social and economic inequality.

A new radical left, pro-independence force could then have an opportunity to make headway again in the next few years. It won’t come as a result of Palestine but may come as a result of community campaigning against Labour’s version of austerity with no "magic money" to shake and the "taps turned off’" and especially where Scottish Labour is supine to Starmer.

Of course, the situation could be complicated by others. The SNP will try to regain its mojo but has lost much of its credibility to do so. The same can be said of the Greens. Alba might fare a bit better.

Yet the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections might just be enough to knock some socialist heads back together again. That said, they’ll need to get a move on and start to do the kind of community campaigning that SML and the SSA did.

Professor Gregor Gall is an affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow and author of Tommy Sheridan: From hero to zero? A political biography (Welsh Academic Press, 2012).