Class Struggle – film from the Clyde and  UCS 1

Dir.  Anne Guedes 1971

One of the most memorable sequences from Class Struggle – film from the Clyde (itself a most memorable film) is the sequence shot in the double bottom of a ship being built during the UCS Work-in. The sequence is like a scene from hell. The noise of hammers and welding torches reverberate off the metal, making the men’s voices redundant – although that doesn’t stop the chat (lipreading must have been a by-product of experience in that job). The film itself is reduced to black and flaring white lighting up occasional shots of the men working. It is no wonder that the Joint Co-ordinating Committee initially refused Cinema Action – the collective that made the film – access to that job as too dangerous!

Mind you that was the only refusal of access that Anne Guedes and her cameraman (and future husband) Eduardo Guedes received when they shot the two films that were screened recently as part of the 40th Anniversary of the UCS Work-in – and that was eventually rescinded. The film collective was given unique access to the Upper Clyde yards during the 18 month Work-in and has produced two remarkable films. The longer Class Struggle tells the story of the shipyards of the Clyde and the full story of the Work-in from the perspective of the work force. The shorter UCS 1 is a campaigning film concentrating on the marches, the meetings and the stewards and their impact on the politics and community at the time (and many would say since).

Both films use the voice of the workers (and apprentices) to tell their own story. There is no ‘voice of God’ narrating the films. Neither do they edit to deliver a didactic message. Criticisms of the participants are both implied and stated (watch the wonderful sequence of  Boilermaker’s leader Dan McGarvey managing to appear cynical about victory while falling asleep at the same time!). But what comes across magnificently is the level of pride from both the workforce and the community (both locally and internationally) for the innovative tactic, for the stewards who came up with it and organised it, and for the job (dirty and dangerous though it was) that they did.

Ann Guedes, the co-founder of Cinema Action, who flew over from her home in Lisbon for the Screenings in Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre, is herself a  remarkable woman. Her life has taken her from interrogation by the French security forces to sleeping on Paisley floors.

The events that brought her to Glasgow and the shipyards could be a feature film themselves. They go back to the occupations and strikes of Paris in 1968. Ann, a journalist in the English language service of French broadcaster ORTF, was part of the occupation there, and soon came to the attention of the security forces.

Expelled from France along with her three children, but without any possessions or her then-husband’s writings, she eventually got back to Britain via Germany and the West German student movement. Her Paris experiences led directly to the Clyde.

“The French actions,” says Ann. “linked workers’ struggles, students and other sections of the community – something that had not happened before. Occupations too, were a new development, the idea of workers taking direct control over their workplaces was very important to all of us in Cinema Action. When I read about this happening on the Clyde, I had to get there to record it.”

Cinema Action was formed to record workers’s struggles and film campaigning films for them. Initially the collective produced five-minute ‘Cinetracts’ for workers in disputes as diverse as Merseyside Docks, GEC, Rolls Royce Coventry and Vauxhall, and against the In Place of Strife legislation proposed by the Labour Government in 1969.

Glasgow was “Everything I could have dreamed of.” Ann now recalls. Cinema Action first came up to record demos in early/mid-1971. From this they produced the short campaign film, UCS 1. This gained them  unique approval from the Co-ordinating Committee to access the Work-in, and they travelled up many times, often staying on floors, in particular the floor of Paisley folk singer Danny Kyle. Indeed, shipyard apprentice Stephen Farmer – adopted by the Cinema Action crew – says he once woke up to find Billy Connolly making breakfast!

This support was crucial, Ann says. “We had the constant support of the Stewards, and they recognised the need to have their side of the Work-in documented.” Money from the support fund was donated to fund the films, and practical support given too.

In return Ann was clear that the use of the film was to support workers in dispute. “The difference between Cinema Action and the mainstream media,” she asserts “is that in working class film you listen to the workers.”

In Ann’s view it was the support across the community and internationally that made the Work-in a success. “Many people thought that the workers hadn’t a chance”, she remembers. “But the spirit was abroad. The spark was all-embracing and international donations flooded in.”

That support hasn’t diminished. Ann was grateful for the opportunity to revisit some of the places and people that made such a difference 40 years ago. She says “It was excellent of Unite the union,  to bring me over. I was particularly glad to see the films again. I hadn’t seen them for such a long time, and to meet the veterans again renewed my enthusiasm for the fight!”

Ann is also clear that remembering the Work-in is not nostalgia. “The UCS Work-in was about looking forward,” she proudly claims. “We need a similar approach from current activists. It inspired other takeovers then and should be doing so now. I was losing confidence in the possibility of people learning those lessons. But when I arrived in Glasgow hope and confidence were rekindled. It is possible. That fire, that humour, is not something in the past, it’s there in every man, woman and child in Scotland.”

Chris Bartter, 2012

Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography

Gregor Gall, Welsh Academic Press 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1860571190, 384PP, £25

This is the second book to be written by an SSP member about Tommy Sheridan. Without doubt Gregor Gall’s Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography is an improvement on Alan McCombes Downfall, a book so full of bitterness and anger that it failed to offer any meaningful political analysis into Sheridan’s ‘downfall’. Gall’s book sets out to be different, and he declares his intention is to write what he calls a ‘middle way’ account of Sheridan.

The book starts with an examination of Sheridan’s formative political years as a community campaigner in Glasgow. Gall takes us through the anti-Poll Tax struggle, the campaign that brought Sheridan to national prominence. The success of the anti-Poll Tax struggle established Sheridan as a Scottish folk hero and in the words of Gall a “genuine man of the people”. These were crucial years in the political development of Tommy Sheridan and they laid the basis for his becoming an MSP. There is not the space to go into detail here but the opening chapters of Gall’s book should be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand why Sheridan made the impact he did on Scottish politics.

Tommy Sheridan was the Scottish Socialist Party’s (SSP) only MSP between 1999 and 2003. Gall refers to this period as Sheridan’s ‘golden years’. Sheridan’s clenched-fist salute in the first Scottish Parliament remains one of the great iconic images in the history of radical Scotland. He explains how Sheridan’s major achievement was the successful Bill to abolish warrant sales. In addition to this, Sheridan introduced legislation to replace the council tax with a fairer alternative, and he introduced a Bill for universal free school meals. According to Gall, these Bills illustrated that Sheridan never lost sight of the pragmatism of his earlier years. He was radical without being ultra-left and pragmatic without losing sight of his principles and he continued to demonstrate to working class people that he was someone who ‘could get things done’. Sheridan acknowledged, unlike many others on the far left, that to truly change the system you first have to get inside it and ‘play the game’. ‘Playing the game’ meant developing credible and workable policies in the here and now. It meant taking electoral politics seriously and it required engaging with the mass media in order to get the message out. It is only when you start to ‘play the game’ that the establishment begins to fear you, and Sheridan could play the game better than anyone.

In 2003, Sheridan was joined in parliament by five SSP colleagues. Many on the left today see 2003 as the high point of Scottish Socialism. In a sense it was, but Gall, always the realist, never allows himself to get carried away by the parliamentary breakthrough. He notes that the ‘big breakthrough’ was always likely to be a ‘transient and temporary phenomenon’ and concludes that the SSP “failed to make a lasting and sizeable impact upon politics in Scotland”. The reasons are complex and would merit a separate essay, but Gall highlights a number of issues worth mentioning here. Firstly, he argues that the SSP lacked a defining issue noting that the Campaign to Scrap the Council Tax did not catch on in a way the party had hoped for. He adds that organisationally the party was ill prepared for the election of six MSPs and that the MSPs themselves were unsure how to operate as a successful parliamentary group. I would also question quality and calibre of some of the new MSPs. When in 2005 four of then walked out of the chamber during First Ministers questions, Sheridan (and many others in the party) thought their stunt was ‘infantile’. Iain MacWhirter, writing in The Herald, hit the proverbial nail on the head when he pointed out, that “Tommy was a serious politician compared to the others who were more interested in staging student occupations and walkouts”.

From 2004 onwards a civil war broke out in the ranks of Scotland’s socialist movement and so began the long decline of both Sheridan and the SSP. This is a crucial part of the book and Gall has difficult territory to navigate. In the end he provides us with an account that is problematic. Sheridan and his closest supporters withdrew their co-operation from Gall’s book (a mistake in my view). This meant that Gall had to rely primarily on the testimonies of those who testified against Sheridan. To be fair to the author he does his best to counter their zeal, but nonetheless his desire to find a ‘middle way’ narrative is compromised.

On the 23rd November 2004 Tommy Sheridan sued News International over allegations about his private life, a decision described by Gall as a “spectacular political misjudgement”. Few people, including his closest supporters, encouraged Sheridan to sue. The CWI group argued it was a mistake to seek justice in what they called the ‘capitalist courts’. Gall concludes that with this single act Sheridan carelessly sacrificed his achievements. Whilst this is partially true Gall fails to offer substantive criticism of the SSP leadership. For example he dismisses the claim that the debacle was badly handled by the SSP leadership almost from the word go. Consequently, he fails to analyse why it was that instead of adopting a crisis management approach, the SSP leadership actually made the situation worse. Gall also dismisses the suggestion that there was a plot against Sheridan. However, if there was no plot against Sheridan, why was it that within hours of the infamous Executive Committee meeting Sheridan’s opponents were briefing the press about his resignation? Why was it that they tipped off the off the press about alleged minutes, an action that encouraged News International to delve further into the internal matters of a socialist organisation? Gall misses the point that it was a result of their actions that the SSP leadership became involved in Sheridan’s defamation case.

The SSP’s involvement in the case meant that in order to win Sheridan had to be ruthless, perhaps more ruthless than he wanted to be. He presented SSP witnesses with a simple moral choice: give evidence to aide him or give evidence to aide News International. Sheridan gambled that the dualistic nature of the court room would simplify moral dilemmas. That he had no right to present socialists with this choice is a fair point. But he did, and sometimes you have to deal with what is, not how you would like things to be. In the minds of Sheridan’s witnesses, testifying against a fellow socialist, and aiding News International, was an act that was unthinkable.

Sheridan of course, won his 2006 defamation case but the path to his downfall began the moment he stepped outside the court room. Gall notes that Sheridan should have been magnanimous and attempted a ‘constructive dialogue’ with moderates in the SSP. Instead, Sheridan went to the Daily Record (the New Labour supporting rag that once called him a working class zero!), and branded as ‘scabs’ those who testified against him. This is mistake number one and a strategic blunder of titanic proportions. Gall reveals how it encouraged SSP witnesses to engage in a ‘rearguard struggle’ to overturn the jury’s verdict. This ‘rearguard struggle’ involved open collaboration between members of the SSP and Lothian and Borders Police and News International. Gall explains how ultimately it was the SSP witnesses not News International that led to Tommy Sheridan being jailed in 2010.

Sheridan’s second mistake was his decision to split the SSP and form Solidarity. Gall describes Solidarity as an alliance of Sheridanistas, independents, the CWI and the SWP. From the outset it was the wrong alliance, and whilst in the early days Solidarity organised large rallies, Gall points out that they did not translate into new recruits, activists or electoral success. Moreover, in the years of political decline, Gall argues that Tommy Sheridan’s image changed from Scottish folk hero to ‘celebrity politician’. He notes that Sheridan became increasingly renowned more for his ‘celebrity activities’ than his socialist or political activity and this devalued his previous public image. ‘Big Brother’ was a mistake and so too were numerous tabloid articles more to do with Sheridan’s family than politics. Gall argues that Sheridan encouraged the ‘celebritisation of politics’ and the outcome was a deepening of the celebrity at the expense of not just the politics but socialist politics in particular. This is an astute point. Moreover, Sheridan locked himself into a battle with News International at the expense of real politics. The result was that in 2007 he lost his Glasgow seat.

I have already noted that the latter part of book is too dependent on unreliable sources and as a result the book loses its objectivity. Then there is an unnecessary chapter entitled ‘Person, Persona and Personality’ which only serves to highlight why Marxists make bad psychologists and Gall, a professor of industrial relations, not human psychology, is out of his comfort zone here. Rather than offering any meaningful insight into Sheridan’s psychology the ‘Tommy haters’ and ‘crackpot feminists’, the very people Gall says are guilty of ‘tactical ineptitude’ (meaning he questions their political judgment) are given yet another platform to tell the world why they hate Tommy Sheridan. The mistake in this chapter is that it will be readily used by Sheridan’s supporters to dismiss the whole book.

Did Gall write a book that provided a middle way? The answer is yes and no. Perhaps he was too close to events, and too close to some in the SSP leadership to be truly objective. Moreover, a list of his sources in the second part of the book reads like a who’s who of SSP witnesses, and this alone dispels any claim by Gall to have written a middle way narrative. Nonetheless it is a decent book that covers a difficult subject matter.

Gary Fraser