I’ve always found hero worship odd. I’ve never had rock n roll/pop heroes, religious heroes or political heroes.
Back in1979, friends of mine flocked to Knock, Dublin and other places to see John Paul 2. Although I was 13,and not from the community the Pope came to speak to, I saw a spotlight on our place, shone by the entourage of journalists and commentators he brought with him. As I write this, a smaller crowd are greeting the present Pope, who is busy apologising for child abuse meted out by his church, but not apologising for the incredible male-ness of his permanent entourage and decision makers.
As heroes topple, most of them men, its the behaviour of those around them that fascinate me.
Many friends of mine were absolute hero worshippers of Morrissey and the Smiths. As the working class pseud sang about the plight of the “his community,” and their culture in the eighties, millions dressed like him, had their hair cut like him and quoted his lyrics almost as I imagine fans of 18th and 19thcentury romantic poets did. He was of that lineage.
Cut to the late nineties and two thousands, and Morrissey’s increasingly anglocentric, British nationalism and seemingly uninformed sexism was brushed aside almost as “mistakes, flaws,” by their still heroised bard. His more recent behaviour, praising alt-right tropes etc, hasn’t pushed his back catalogue to the back of the record collection, yet. The Smiths and early Morrissey are still untouchable in a way Gary Glitter’s back catalogue will never be. He still has a stage in front of thousands, no, millions of people to whom he can spout his message of “Viva Hate!” Unfair? I don’t think so. Like all monsters, the monster in Morrissey must be denounced. And someone with the huge power of a public voice should be humbled. The price if not, is that more politically vulnerable fans are not given clear messages of what is acceptable politics and unacceptable fascism. How the fans/ex fans react is hugely important.
In the seventies and early eighties, Fascist imagery, lyrics and speeches from the stage were made unacceptable by the superb “Rock Against Racism.” Eric Clapton, has spent years apologising for his drunken racist outbursts, and many fans, radio DJ’s etc, to this day body swerve his music. If you find some of his outbursts on YouTube, fans can be heard booing him. Bowie and others from the avant garde school of pop/rock were forced to abandon fascist imagery and nowadays, no right wing music or bands get beyond backstreet pub gigs.
The fans spoke. They condemned and they refused to buy tickets. Rock Against Racism changed the rock and pop industry every bit as much as Thatcher, Stock Aiken and Waterman, Island or Simon Cowell. An unhealthy and imbalanced relationship between ego-ist, and at best, niave pop stars and unacceptable symbols and politics of hate, was averted by major bands, fans and record labels signing up to Rock Against Racism principles.
Back in early 2005, branches of the then thriving Scottish Socialist Party, of which I was a member, were called to extraordinary meetings in which we were told that our then heroised by many, “Convenor,” Tommy Sheridan, had badly erred. Tommy, at meetings some of us attended, apologised. In those days, Me Too, the movement of support for those who have been victims of abuse, did not exist. Powerful men were the norm. Heroes out to save us from the enemy. There were no subtleties in public discourse. To many of those in the SSP, Sheridan was a hero, and although he had more subtle options, he was going to “fight The News of the World,” which had published details of a visit to a swingers club in Manchester he, some friends and a reporter had made. Sheridan’s behaviour, and those who then sought to gain politically within the Socialist movement were crucial to what then happened in Scottish (and subsequently, UK wide) socialist politics.
Sheridan pursued a tactic of outright denial-which on its own could well have seen this issue blow over. To add to the denial, Sheridan decided to sue the Murdoch empire. Most of the rest of the SSP disagreed with this tactic–to throw our at that time sizeable forces at this would ensure we were caught up in something for years that was far from why activists from across the left had come together, volunteering time, money and energy to the SSP. Activists would burn out totally, if the raison d’etre of the party became the sanctity of “The Great Hero Leader,” who, in fact, was a very naughty boy. But it was those who saw political capital for them and their small factions who turned a small body blow into the destruction of, until then, Europe’s most successful socialist alliance. I won’t go in to detail about what followed, Alan Mccombes book, Downfall does a pretty good job of telling what happened, as does this Thousand Flowers article.
The thing is, during all of this, naively, I thought politics could continue as normal. We could continue to fight the Blairist Government, and fight for amazing socialist reforms. I remember, clearly, going to a small SSP Regional Council meeting in The Piper Bar, in Glasgow City Centre. The main protagonists were there, including Sheridan, and his until this point in time, best friend Keith Baldassara. I was there to ask Sheridan our MSP, advice on a proposal our branch had discussed regarding education, but the entire meeting became an argument between Baldassara and Sheridan about Sheridan’s stance on suing the News of the World. After a long time of intractable argument, I asked could we turn to other business, to which Baldassara told me, “you don’t know what you are talking about here, Neil. This is more important.” And clearly it was, to them. To me, as someone who had joined the SSP in spite of not liking Sheridan’s insincere rhetorical style and obvious ego, the most important thing was politics, not the preservation of the great leader, from whatever side you took.
Subsequently, Sheridan pulled together groups of people whose egos he stroked and factions that hitherto had tried their best to take over control of the alliance. Such was sectarian socialist politics. And those groups and fans who felt Sheridan was a hero or a ticket, wrecked a movement. Sheridan dragged people through the courts, and using his influence in the press, dragged the reputations of women who had been comrades in arms, and innocent bystanders through the mud. Many of us built a group within the party to try to save it, and to support those comrades Sheridan had decided to try to destroy. It had limited success. After 2007, the SSP and the Scottish Socialist movement went into a decline it still has difficulty pulling up from. And that tarnish went on to infect the Independence movement as Sheridan flapped about trying to find income streams and ego stroking crowds.
I watch the current left heroes across the UK, two in particular, through the lense of experience of the SSP and that of Rock Against Racism, and know that if the worst aspects and mistakes of what has become known as “Corbynism” are not called out and addressed, the Labour Party will flounder in its attempts to pull the party left yet again. And here in Scotland as people line up in solidarity with an alleged abuser and victims in the SNP, I can only hope the lessons of the past become the voice of the majority.
One “hero” is not a movement. The refusal of men to admit their fallibilities will wreck all that is good about what has been built. Defending one man should not be our raison d’etre. Change should be. Let’s hope these current heroes and their fans understand that.