A two-part review essay of Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2011, pps.326, £9.99) and Tommy Sheridan: From Hero To Zero by Gregor Gall (Welsh Academic Press, 2012, pps.360, £23.75).
Part 1. The Bollocks of Henry the Eight – Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story.
It follows, then, that by virtue of particular traits of their character, individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organisation of society, by the relation of forces within it. – G.V. Plekhanov, On the Role of the Individual in History, 1898.
Hence the cheap jibes about the role of individuals, good and bad. But classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously. In the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations. This also provides the basis for the role of personalities in history… History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programmes? Why theoretical struggles? – L. D. Trotsky, The Class, The Party and The Leadership, 1940.
As well as the inherent interest of this sensational saga the Tommy Sheridan story has consequences beyond Scotland because of the significance of the Scottish Socialist Party for the international left. There is only passing reference in Downfall to the international dimension of the irony and tragedy that the behaviour of a single person brought down the pioneer and exemplar – certainly in the English speaking world – of the new broad pluralistic, radical party. When the United Left Alliance was nothing but a glint in the eye of a few Utopian heralds of left unity, Jo Harvie, the editor of the SSP newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Voice, was invited to address a left unity conference in Dublin in November 2000. The collapse of the SSP was a body blow to the hopes of thousands in and out of Scotland for a new left.
Whether the content and claims of Downfall are an accurate account of the facts readers will judge for themselves. Downfall should be widely read on the left, and it can be easily read as it is well written and reads in places like a suspenseful crime or spy thriller. To this reviewer it is wholly convincing, but I must declare my long distance support for the SSP leadership at the time of this savage war.
Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan met during the Miners Strike in 1984 and “went on to forge a close political alliance that was to last for twenty years” (p. 2). McCombes was certainly Tommy Sheridan’s closest political colleague at national public level. Keith Baldassara might claim that ‘accolade’ as Tommy’s right hand man in his Pollok heartland and a close friend. McCombes himself describes Baldassara as “Tommy’s closest friend and staunchest political ally”. McCombes was the strategist behind the charisma of Tommy Sheridan. His authorship of 90% of Imagine, the bestselling manifesto for 21st century socialism published under both their names, is an example of the indirect responsibility, only partly examined in Downfall, of Alan McCombes for the elevation of Tommy Sheridan to the political position that would allow his actions to “wreck the left in Scotland for a generation”.
Of course Alan McCombes was not responsible for Tommy Sheridan’s behaviour, was not personally close enough to know the details, and is politically and ethically in a different league to Tommy Sheridan. But he was the chief architect of building the SSP on the pillar of the personal magnetism of one man – as well as on the pillars, it must be added, of radical socialism, mass activity, left unity, Scottish independence, and connection with ordinary people. Hence he left the SSP fatally vulnerable to the portrait of Dorian Gray that lay behind the facade of Tommy Sheridan and the “tower of lies” (p. 86) Sheridan constructed to keep it hidden.
There were objective reasons too why the SSP became over identified with one individual. By the mid 1990s the effects of the Poll Tax had begun to fade and Tory sleaze fuelled a drift back to Labour. “By May 1995, we [Scottish Militant Labour] were down from six councillors to just one…Tommy was now the last man standing – our sole elected standard bearer. And it stayed that way until 2003. He was an outstanding public figurehead – articulate and inspirational – and, for the next eight years, Scottish socialism came to be personified in the eyes of the public by one man” (p.23).
The SSP and its antecedents grew through a combination of radical campaigning, left unification, support for Scottish independence and intervention in elections. Militant in Scotland was the backbone of the anti Poll Tax campaign which refused payment, invaded official offices, tore up debt files and broke up warrant sales (sales of goods to collect the Tax, pps.14-15). If there are uncanny similarities between aspects of the SSP and the ULA there are equally striking echoes of our anti household tax campaign (and of the earlier campaigns on bin and water charges) in the anti Poll Tax movement.
In 1991 Militant members in Scotland left the Labour Party and launched Scottish Militant Labour. In 1995, “we began to take the first tentative steps towards creating a bigger and broader movement of socialism in Scotland. Since time immemorial, the radical left had been segregated into hostile tribes…the weapons were newspapers, pamphlets and verbal polemics. But some of us, at least, had begun to chill out and leave behind the entrenched political sectarianism that had historically paralysed the Left” (p.23). Out of the wide forces gathered by the Hands Off Our Water campaign, the campaign against the Criminal Justice Act (which involved almost all the left except the SWP who organised “their own little rival campaign”, p.23), “a new political force began to take shape. The Scottish Socialist Alliance was born in Glasgow City Halls on the morning of 10 February 1996” (p.24).
And out of continued campaigning – against the closure of schools and community centres – an added push to the alliance towards a cohesive political party came from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This step, the proposal to wind up Scottish Militant Labour in favour of a broader socialist party, was condemned by the Militant (CWI*) leadership in London. “On Sunday 20 September 1998, a few hundred Scottish Socialist Alliance activists gathered in India House…and agreed unanimously that the group should transform itself into a fully-fledged political party. There was no media fanfare but, within five years, the newly founded Scottish Socialist Party would grow into one of the strongest left-wing organisations anywhere in Europe” (27).
When Tommy Sheridan took the oath of allegiance to the British Crown in the new Scottish Parliament, on 12th May 1999, he prefaced it “with the assurance that his oath was to the people of Scotland” and, in a similar transformative act to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, “raised a clenched fist in the air as he repeated the archaic words” (p. 29). He toured Scotland and addressed packed public meetings. Labour councillors and Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) activists defected and “a parade of actors, writers and academics publicly backed the party” (p.32). A university study showed over half the SSP’s 2001 general election candidates had only got involved after the party had been launched. “The old Marxist-Trotskyist-Communist Left still had influence in the leadership but the SSP had grown much larger than the sum total of the combined old Left. It was a brand-new party, made up overwhelmingly of people who had never before been active in politics” (p.33).
The Socialist Workers Party* had opposed both the SSA and the SSP. A public debate in 1998 heard arguments that are both familiar today and a testament to some progress since. Chris Bambery of the SWP, debating with Alan McCombes, said (p. 33):
“The difference between Alan and myself is what sort of party we need. There is a fundamental divide between reform and revolution. There is a river of blood between them. The attempt of the Scottish Socialist Party to bridge this divide, to have people from the social democratic tradition, the reformist tradition and the revolutionary tradition in the same party, is fundamentally wrong”.
Eventually the SWP joined the SSP (as did the CWI in Scotland).
Tommy Sheridan became a media star and mixed his firebrand, tribune of the people, persona with “an image of himself that made John-Boy Walton look like a gangsta rapper from hell” (p.36). In February 2000, for instance, he “even paraded down the catwalk hand in hand with [his wife] Gail at the National Wedding Exhibition, where he cut the ribbon” (p.36) In November 2002, six months away from the SSP’s extraordinary breakthrough at the may 2003 Scottish elections Keith Baldassara called McCombes. He needed to meet. In one of those riveting passages in Downfall McCombes describes how he drove to meet Baldassara in the Costa Café at Harthill Services on the M8. What Baldassara told him ripped the family idyll apart and threatened to stop the breathtaking election success just ahead for the SSP. “Tommy it now transpired, had been living a semi-secret life more akin to that of a 1970s porn star than the leader of a socialist party challenging inequality and exploitation” (p.39).
The following week McCombes confronted Sheridan. On pages 42 to 44 the scene is described in fill colour writing, and the import of the case outlined – as it will be in various elaborations and in convincing detail throughout Downfall. “In the latest opinion polls for Holyrood [the Scottish Parliament], we were now running at 9 per cent, just one point behind the Tories…Indeed, for the wider public, Tommy Sheridan was the SSP. Since his election on 6 May 1999, he had come to personify not just the socialist politics of the SSP but a new kind of politics based on straight talking, decency and self-sacrifice in pursuit of a noble cause.” All this was now threatened by his incredible recklessness. Sheridan assured McCombes the press had no proof and nothing would get out.
The results of the May 2003 election shook even the SSP. Again with portents for our ULA, but topping it by one, six SSP MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) were returned!
McCombes sets the scene and the dramatis personae with lively data and top notch writing. Now the party was built “to a high point of over 3,000 across every corner of Scotland. That made the SSP bigger than the entire myriad of socialist parties and organisations across the UK put together” (p.52). This claim would be even more significant were it easily verifiable. Alas the actual membership figures of left organisations are generally as closely guarded as any “commercially sensitive” information. McCombes says too little, or rather nothing at all, about the role and function of the ‘leadership tendency’ in the SSP, the International Socialist Movement, to which he belonged. They and their journal, Frontline (still going on line) led through political innovation (certainly innovation in the English speaking world) both organisational and theoretical.
McCombes openly discusses, on pages 55 to 57, whether Tommy Sheridan had been built up as a personality cult. For Imagine, the top ten selling book putting the case for socialism, McCombes wrote “virtually every word” but “it was Tommy Sheridan’s name more than anything that shifted those thousands of copies…” Later, “one of the dark jokes that began to circulate around the Scottish Socialist Youth posed the question, ‘What’s the difference between Tommy Sheridan and Jeffrey Archer?’ The answer? ‘Jeffrey Archer’s written a book’” (p.55). After a fairly convincing defence of the centrality of Sheridan for the SSP McCombes ends the discussion with, “No one knew it at the time but we were to discover the hard way that Tommy Sheridan’s fame was to be our Achilles heel” (p.57).
McCombes introduces the fatal News of the World front page with all the techniques of fiction but without ever skimping on the provision of factual evidence. At midnight on Halloween 2004 the headline “blazed out” from a twenty-four-hour shop. The story, by-lined to ‘Lusty News of the World sex columnist Anvar Khan’, described a visit by her to Cupid’s swingers club in Manchester with “Patrick – an MSP…” This story, but more so Tommy Sheridan’s dogged determination to rebut it at all costs, led to a two year convulsion in the SSP, followed by a split, and its drop from breathtaking success to electoral wipe out and organisational flooring.
Tommy’s response was, “I’m just going to deny it” (p.61) though he admitted it, according to this narrative, to an SSP executive meeting on 9th November 2004 that was to become the nub of Scotland’s most famous court cases in recent years. The strategy of McCombes and the majority of the SSP leadership was that Sheridan could survive these revelations “with contrition and honesty but, if he denied the allegations and was then caught lying, it could be political suicide” (p.61). McCombes and Baldassara offered a second option to apology and contrition which, to my tastes and provided it was really practical, was the better one: “he could ignore it – perhaps issuing a ‘non-denial denial’ along the lines of ‘I refuse to even dignify this nonsense with a response’” (p.63).
The best response to personal sexual allegations is that they are personal and no business of anyone else but the consenting parties. The trouble was that some of the allegations waiting in the wings went a bit further than unconventional but consensual sexual behaviour. The treatment of his partners – as it emerged – was not exactly principled and, above all, there is the accusation of patronage of the commercial sex industry, an issue that is not really cleared up in Downfall. Nor does Downfall draw a clear distinction between swinging, the consensual if unorthodox practice of couples and groups meeting others for casual sex, and exploitative and commercial sex. Nor is it rigorously established that Cupids is a commercial sex establishment based on prostitution rather than a club, with an admission price, for swingers.
Tommy Sheridan was having none of these options and the drama played out the logic of these different lines of response to the inevitable end. Six years later, what should have been “fish and chip paper” (Rosie Kane MSP, p 61) had passed disaster point for the Scottish left. Around this point in the book McCombes begins to ease away from his use of neutral narrative, letting events tell the story, to the insertion of judgemental comments. These are occasional asides, increasing in frequency until they build up to complete character condemnation towards the end.
Again and again McCombes reprises the case, or reinforces it from new angles, for opposing Sheridan’s denial and for not supporting it when he brought it into the law courts. McCombes’ premise is far from a preference for the easy route and even further from the accusation – still echoing around parts of the British left – of betraying Tommy Sheridan to the Murdoch media empire. It is that the SSP leadership had no choice. His distance from the easy road led in fact to his imprisonment for refusing to hand over the minutes of the executive meeting where Sheridan admitted what he was suing about.
If McCombes and Baldassara had stayed silent (within the party leadership) they would, we are told, have had “to dupe the rest of the party. I could see the grisly scenes unfolding in the future weeks and months – our press team launching a media offensive to clear Tommy’s name; the party’s newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Voice, denouncing the outrageous frame-up of Tommy Sheridan by the tabloid press; our MSPs joining the fray to defend him, oblivious to the truth; the grassroots members of the party out on the streets with petitions… If and when the truth did finally emerge, it would be calamitous for the party” (p.64).
McCombs’ answer to those who complained that the SSP leadership had “bowed down before bourgeois morality” is that the only person who was doing this was Tommy Sheridan. “He was ready to stop at nothing to preserve his wholesome image. Within a few weeks he would initiate a legal battle that was to consume him for years on end before eating him alive” (p.64). “It was an open secret”, says McCombes (p.65), that Tommy had affairs – or ‘flings’ as he preferred to call them – but these were off-limits politically… In any case, I was in no position to make moral judgements about fidelity. But repeatedly driving down to England with a carload of friends – including a tabloid sex columnist – to a commercial sex club whilst publicly masquerading as devoted family man was quite a different order of transgression and could drag down the party as well as Tommy. And then to mount a marathon, high-profile political and legal campaign to deny the facts…? That would magnify the damage umpteen times over…This was not just about handing our enemies a loaded gun – it was about the most famous socialist figure in the UK getting involved in the notoriously exploitative sex industry”.
As the lawsuit unfolded the proposition presented to the SSP was, in backing up Sheridan’s contentions, to concede that Tommy’s admission was a fabrication, that the SSP leadership had manufactured an elaborate conspiracy to bring Tommy down and that the SSP was a warren of wretches rather than the socialist alternative, and for the entire executive, and other SSP activists, to perjure themselves and leave themselves open to prison sentences in order to admit it.
The Scottish left’s 9/11
On 9th November 2004 the SSP executive convened to receive the bombshell. This meeting and the record of what transpired became central to the long war that was about to begin. Tommy Sheridan owned up to the substance of the News of the World story and apologised but he said, “I will fight it out in court”. McCombes says (p.69), “This icon, this hero of the socialist movement, this figurehead, around whom a wildly successful socialist party had been built, was confessing to behaviour that was off the scale of reckless irresponsibility. And, if that wasn’t enough, he was announcing his intention to embark on a media crusade to deny the facts he had just acknowledged. To cap it all, he was planning to fight a legal battle to disprove the truth. It felt like the walls had just caved in.”
McCombes doesn’t provide a full and simple narrative of the course of this crucial meeting. It’s not clearly stated whether Sheridan agreed to resign as SSP convenor, refused to resign and was effectively sacked by the executive, or bowed to pressure and reluctantly resigned.
Tommy’s media offensive spun around him quitting as SSP convenor to spend more time with his pregnant wife. If this was unchallenged by the party it would implicate the party in it and “then why wouldn’t we support him in any legal challenge he chose to take” (p.78). The myth began that Sheridan was ousted by a group of women MSPs. But “the only people in the party hostile to him were the two groups which would soon become his biggest allies – the Socialist Workers Party and the CWI” (p.79).
Sheridan’s briefing to the SWP (p.80) was that the rest of the SSP executive wanted less emphasis on anti-war campaigning. An SWP internal bulletin said, “It is clear that some in the party were unhappy with the direction Tommy was taking the SSP”. McCombes comments that this is a travesty and that “the SSP had strongly supported the [anti-war campaign] from the start.”
The SSP centre decided the exceptional circumstances required some off-the-record press briefings from themselves: that Sheridan “had been forced to resign over how he intended to handle allegations about his private life”, without any personal detail (p.81). When the Sunday Herald asked for an – not uncommon – affidavit to confirm the information, McCombes obliged. This would later “come back to haunt us” when it was painted as the SSP leadership smearing Sheridan in the bourgeois press. McCombes revisits his remarks about “the only people gunning for Tommy” before the News of the World story (p.84-85).
Though even the party members were still in the dark about what was going on the dyke was beginning to seriously crack. When the News of the World began to hound a woman SSP member from Peterhead who had allegedly had a relationship with Sheridan, the North East Scotland organiser, a friend of hers, tried to deflect the newspaper by giving it the name of another woman. This second SSP activist, from Denmark, with whom Sheridan had a long relationship, had accompanied him to Cupids in Manchester. The organiser said the woman had mentioned she had been down to Manchester and he confirmed that Tommy was the unnamed MSP in the Cupids article. The News of the World reporter recorded the conversation which was also caught by the CCTV outside the News of the World building! The conversation had offered the paper corroboration for links with the two women and the trip to Cupids.
So on 14th November the News of the World carried a second article naming Tommy not for the Cupids visit but for a brand new sex scandal, a four year fling with the Peterhead woman complete with details of less conventional behaviour. Tommy’s denials led a woman who had “accidentally witnessed his behaviour with her own eyes” to make “an anonymous phone call, which was to be the first step on a long journey to the dark heart of Scotland’s biggest ever political and legal sex scandal” (p.83).
Also on 14th November there was a second crisis meeting of the SSP executive. The Peterhead story was, according to McCombes (p.83), “a gift from the gods” for Sheridan and he “came out fighting at the meeting” (p.86). The new story was basically about an affair, less damaging than the Cupids revelations, the woman could be undermined by allegations of prostitution, drug and possible mental health problems, and was “an easier foe to tackle” than Anvar Khan, the News of the World columnist. Tommy was determined to sue the newspaper and he began to roll back on his admissions to the previous executive meeting. The executive issued a statement denying that Tommy’s resignation was provoked by any form of internal in-fighting and acknowledging a possible libel action by him which precluded any comment on the allegations. It was also decided to have a press conference, with all six MSPs present and McCombes chairing, which would seriously backfire.
The media was already asking for the minutes of the 9th November meeting. STV’s sharp political reporter, Bernard Ponsonby, asked if the party would be supporting Tommy’s legal action against the News of the World. They were cornered. McCombes explains (p.88):
If we now publicly backed Tommy in his legal action, we would be locked into supporting the kind of strategy which had led to the political crucifixion of Tory politicians like Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton [who had all initiated libel trials which backfired, the former two being jailed for perjury]. Although none of us had any time for the News of the World, neither were we inclined to give Tommy any encouragement to pursue a kamikaze court case by stamping it with a seal of approval. But we couldn’t say that openly at a packed press conference. It would be tantamount to denouncing Tommy as a liar – which he was – and torpedoing his legal action”
The result of this, that the SSP leadership wasn’t backing Tommy’s case but couldn’t say why, was “we were slaughtered in the media – and by some of our own members who couldn’t understand what was going on” (p.88).
Tommy now “went into overdrive” with a renewed media offensive. A barrage of slander and insults, not least a Scottish Mirror front page headline (18th November 2004) over a story claiming that “lovers” Alan McCombes and MSP Carolyn Leckie had “plotted to axe Tommy” (the relationship was true, the plot a lie), led the SSP leadership to the brink of revealing all. They resisted but “our enforced silence allowed Tommy to scheme like a demon for the next 18 months, inside and outside the party” (p.91). At the third meeting of the executive, on 24th November, the party treasurer, Allison Kane, who was close to Tommy, told how he had asked her to leak false information to the press (p.92).
SSP National Council meeting 28th November 2004
Ahead of a meeting of the SSP National Council, to which the executive reported, on 28th November 2004, McCombes and Colin Fox, the new interim convenor, met with Tommy Sheridan. Three proposals were put to him: he dissociates himself from the tale of a coup against him, he stops speaking to the press about his personal life (“his lies and denials were wearing thin”, p.93) and he drops his legal action. While the case remained live, McCombes says, “the party would inevitably be put under pressure to back him” and “it would be impossible to move on and recapture the glory days of the previous year” (p.93).
Tommy agreed to all three with a request for thirty days grace before dropping the case. He was certain the News of the World would cave in in that timescale. It didn’t and Tommy went back on this (and the agreement to shut up about his personal life). McCombes points to the consequences: “If Tommy had stuck to that part of the agreement, the Scottish Socialist Party would, I believe, have fully recovered during 2005 and gone on to hold the balance of power in the new Scottish Parliament elected in 2007… The ongoing defamation case debilitated the party for years on end” (pps.93-94).
The National Council meeting overwhelmingly supported the stance the executive had taken, “though there was the usual cacophony of noise from the self-defined revolutionary vanguard, under instructions as always from London “(p.94). The small SSP faction, the Republican Communist Network, opposed the executive from the opposite angle. They wanted “everything to be brought out in the open in front of the entire party membership” (p. 95). McCombes concedes that “it seems like a better idea now than it did at the time.” His argument against this, “fearing…serious consequences for the marriage of Tommy and Gail”, is pretty lame. Especially in the context of the dirty war which this book recounts in grim detail.
The National Council agreed by 85 to 20 to support the executive concerning the convenor’s position. It agreed by 93 to 10 to accept Tommy Sheridan’s resignation and to reject rumours of a leadership challenge. “The ten dissidents were members of the Socialist Workers Platform”. Tommy Sheridan endorsed the decision and issued a press statement which should have ended the whole business there and then:
The Scottish Socialist Party has today showed great maturity in reaching a unified position on the way forward. I would like to take this opportunity to confirm that my resignation as party convenor has nothing at all to do with internal power struggles… We are a party of principle and action. We have drawn a line under these internal deliberations. I will now work alongside other party MSPs and the wider party membership to campaign for justice, equality, peace and socialism” (p.95).
But there was a major fault in this “settlement”. Sheridan asked the National Council for the right to take “a personal libel action” (p.96). He had added, “If I get hung out to dry, then it is my problem”. McCombes had responded by citing Bernard Ponsonby’s question as to whether the party was backing the libel action. He warned that the court would have the power to cite the executive and the minutes, and this is what happened. And indeed Sheridan stuck with the case and its aftermath for six subsequent years. McCombes proposes that the logical explanation for this “suicide bombing” was “suppression” (p.96). The suppression of a mountain of “incidents and behaviour that made my skin crawl” (p.97). Here he mentions a litany of items many of which are not revisited, some of which are described as rumours, some are hearsay, and some could be consensual – if heroically energetic – activity at odds with Tommy’s squeaky coupledom, but not necessarily at odds with a liberated but ethical sexuality. This enormous demolition of Sheridan should come (oops!) with a lot more substantiation.
Another reservation about the entire account is McCombes’ use of quoted speech as if it was verbatim reporting. It may be. And I commend in general the research and convincing detail that went into Downfall. But there are places in which it seems unlikely that the actual words repeated were recorded or remembered form the original occasions.
By the end of 2004 Sheridan was portraying his battle with the News of the World as a stand against the Murdoch media empire. This was, in McCombes view, a rhetorical ploy like the claim that opposing the War on Terror was to support the Taliban or Sadam Hussein: “either you are with Tommy Sheridan or you’re with Rupert Murdoch” (p.100). Yet in 1999 Sheridan had been offered a column in the Scottish Sun and had been for acceptance before a counter offer from the Daily Record.
At first even many of those who would split alongside Sheridan to establish Solidarity opposed his legal “crusade to clear his name”. In early 2005 Sheridan was backing Colin Fox against McCombes for replacement convenor. (Fox, though conciliatory at times, never sided with Sheridan and remains today one of the very few remaining SSP leaders from this era.) “His call for unity during the November National Council was now forgotten as he [Tommy Sheridan] held a series of private face-to-face meetings with people he felt he could influence” (p.109). McCombes identifies a developing coalition that emboldened Sheridan: some journalists who swung to Sheridan and the simple story of the wronged hero, his “conspiratorial spin doctor, Hugh Kerr”, “the SWP and CWI factions and all but one of the seven influential regional [SSP] organisers, as well as “Tommy’s own hard-core fan club” (p.100).
After the February 2005 SSP conference, where Colin Fox was elected, Sheridan told the Evening Times that he would never forgive the News of the World for “threatening not only my child’s life but my wife’s life” and “ I’ll never forgive anyone who believed its lies either to be honest. If there was anyone who considered themselves close to me I’ll never forgive them for effectively siding with what I would call the forces of darkness” (p.112). McCombes comments: “What we did believe were the facts, admitted by Tommy with his own tongue. He was now lying about his comrades in the SSP leadership …openly to the people of Glasgow through the evening newspaper. He knew we were effectively gagged and could not reply” (p.112). Nevertheless this sustained message management, of self-gagging, by the SSP leadership – premised on the centrality of one personality to the SSP – would not prevent the walls of the SSP from tumbling to (hopefully reconstructable) ruins.
George Galloway joined in, criticising the SSP for “a terrible blunder”. Colin Fox met him and explained the situation and Galloway agreed not to interfere. But on the eve of the libel case he appeared on television to support Sheridan and accuse the SSP leadership of “political assassination” (p.113).
McCombes and Sheridan’s last meeting was in December 2005. This attempt to get them working together again foundered on Sheridan’s insistence that he be reselected to head the SSP list for the 2007 Holyrood election, 18 months later. The party’s Glasgow regional council had delayed the selection until after the court case. McCombes wasn’t on the council but supported the delay.
Two sheriff officers appeared at SSP HQ on 11th May 2006 with a court order for the minutes of the SSP executive meeting of 9th November 2004, the meeting at which Tommy had owned up to the News of the World story. Sheridan had kept the three day courtroom battle, to try to stop the News of the World citing the minutes as evidence, quiet. Now it was too late to destroy them. It was now evidence. Jeffrey Archer had been jailed for altering his diary. “Even if it had been politically acceptable to rewrite our own history by falsifying these minutes, redacting them, editing them, or destroying them, Tommy’s secrecy had made this impossible” (p.119). The minutes plainly stated that “Tommy admitted to the meeting that he had in fact visited the club on two occasions…” (p.119).
Alan Green, the SSP national secretary, and Colin Fox met Sheridan to tell him to kill the case as the party was now involved. How McCombes can provide word-for-word reportage – complete with quoted dialogue – of a meeting he deliberately stayed away from, is beyond me. He even reports that “Tommy nodded” (p.121). McCombes material is generally substantiated, often heavily and devastatingly so. There are plenty references at the rear. Why he feels the need for the dramatisation on this occasion I don’t know. Perhaps one of the others recorded the meeting or – as Alan Green was capable of doing – gave the author a detailed account of it.
Anyway Sheridan wouldn’t budge and wanted the SSP to defy the court order and keep the minutes. Green and Fox, who had been among the more sympathetic to Sheridan, were now for handing over the minutes. But McCombes was against. Again his fear of putting the matter out there. He argues that Sheridan would have “lambasted the SSP as a spineless collection of cowards …I could also imagine the sycophantic stamping, clapping and cheering of a big swathe of his audience” (p.122). McCombes seem to have considered Sheridan to be in a strong rather than a weak position. The corollary of this was his fear that, “As events were later to show, there was no shortage of SSP members – some of them highly educated professionals – who were as susceptible to manipulation by a demagogic orator as the crowd at a Nuremburg rally” (p.123). A bit OTT. And what does it say about the SSP audience and members and the nature of much of the support for the SSP that they would be so “susceptible to manipulation by a demagogic orator”? Nevertheless there is an easily understandable and simple point when he says: “I knew in my heart that compliance would provoke an ugly political backlash” (p.123). Though the economy with information up to this point – from the SSP as well from Sheridan – ensured that the members and public could not have known that compliance was compliance with the truth and refusal was consistent with the maintenance of an ever higher “tower of lies” (p.92).
The upshot of this was that Alan McCombes, supposedly a central player in the conspiracy against Tommy Sheridan, took sole custody of the minutes and went to jail for defying the court order. He argues “the alternative was to capitulate to the courts – and see the work that I and other people had put in over decades reduced to ashes in the inevitable civil war that would erupt within the party. It was defiance or destruction” (p.123). I think that defiance was unavoidable, if only because anything else would have been misunderstood in the circumstances, but – the tragedy – in the end it was civil war and destruction anyway.
The SSP executive voted on Sunday 14th May 2006 that Sheridan should withdraw from the court case (with one against who wanted the resolution to be an instruction rather than a request; those for included the CWI member present), against a proposal to destroy the minutes, for the minutes to be in McCombes custody and that “they cannot be handed to the court”. The latter was agreed with just one against and one abstention. The following Tuesday McCombes refused to give over the minutes to a court commissioner and on the following Sunday (21st May) the SSP executive unanimously backed him. Present were Lynn Sheridan, Tommy’s sister, the SWP and the CWI. “We now had unity on dealing with the crisis”, McCombes remarks (p.127). There followed large all-members meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh which overwhelmingly supported the strategy.
But this just-completed, clearly signposted, straight and wide road had a culvert bomb about to go off in a matter of days. Colin Fox rang Alan McCombes to say “the News of the World have been given a copy of our minutes – the November the ninth minutes.” If they were genuine it would be impossible to avoid the accusation that the leadership was feigning heroic unity while betraying the party to avoid jail. If the minutes were forgeries the implications were as shocking. The new minutes were remarkably similar to the original ones but “instead of admitting his visits to the Cupids swingers club in Manchester, Tommy denies it.” Finally in the new minutes, Tommy agrees to temporarily stand down to allow him fight his legal battle against the “lies of the Murdoch empire”. “It was a complete fabrication”, says McCombes (p.128).
Tommy Sheridan had recently (12th May, p.121) been one of the very few people to view the minutes and had studied them “intently”. It would become a cornerstone of Sheridan’s audacious case that the SSP executive, bar those members who had come over to him, were lying about the admissions on 9th November 2004, that the minutes over which Alan McCombes was about to be locked up in Soughton Prison were “concocted” and that the fake minutes – delivered to the News of the World as the party stood together in the firing line and refused to surrender the real ones – were the genuine ones. During the trial these second minutes were hardly referred to by the pursuer (plaintiff) and for good reasons.
Another bomb (an ‘Open Letter Bomb’ as Chapter 14 is titled) was exploded two days later, Sunday 28th May 2006. The day began with the Sunday Herald referring to the affidavit “from a senior party official” backing the minimal briefing given to the paper in November 2004. “It was guaranteed to cause ructions at the National Council” that day (p.144). Colin Fox brought the paper to McCombes in Soughton Prison that morning. McCombes expected to be easily identified as the signatory but decided “this wasn’t the time to burden Colin Fox with that knowledge” (p.144). This was either a thoughtful sparing of Colin, as he claims, or a little closed shadiness of his own. Though on his release, after the National Council, his friends implored him not to act on his proposal to then circulate a statement taking responsibility for the affidavit (p.153).
“As the party gathered for an emergency National Council meeting on the Sunday afternoon, Tommy was preparing a political bloodbath” (p.134) There were three or four blades used in this bloodbath. They were energetically prepared by Sheridan beforehand or – unfortunately – were there already in the make-up of the SSP ready to be wielded by him. Earlier that week in Glasgow he had met the CWI leader. He met SWP leaders on the eve of the National Council. Outside the National Council meeting an ‘Open Letter to SSP Members from Tommy Sheridan’ was distributed.
From pages 135 to 142 McCombes takes it apart. Sheridan attacked “an unsavoury cabal of comrades at the core of the leadership” who were “attempting to implicate me as the culprit for the current News of the World and bourgeois press led attempts to destroy us” (p.135). He asked, “Who is responsible for the mess we are in?” McCombes comments: “It was like Billy Bunter demanding to know who had eaten the cakes”. The Letter demanded, “Who decided that such confidential meetings be recorded?” Well everyone at the meeting in accordance with the party constitution, responds McCombes, adding that even the IRA Army Council kept a record of their meetings.
The Letter alleged that people in the SSP leadership had accused him of drug-dealing, human trafficking and frequenting prostitutes. The Letter was sent to the media so 95% of SSP members were hearing all this for the first time in the news or the newspapers. But part of its power to persuade was undoubtedly that they, and probably many National Council delegates, had little or no information to the contrary. “Alan and a core group of seven or eight leading comrades have misled the party into our current quandary”, it said (p.141). One point baffled everyone. Sheridan called for an end to resistance on the minutes. Watching television in jail McCombes couldn’t believe his ears when he heard that “the party had capitulated to the courts”.
Another blade was Tommy’s power of persuasion and his popularity. This was a double edged blade, the other edge being the enthrallment of so large a section of the members. This was the Achilles heel of the leadership; the sandy foundation of the SSP. Part of this personal power was the aggressiveness of his allies old and new and – again, an apparent organisational fault of the SSP – their apparent ability to throw their weight around against the most elementary rules of the good conduct of meetings.
McCombes records, “as he entered the lecture hall – slightly late as always – a sycophantic roar of stamping and cheering welled up for the man who had single-handedly dragged the SSP to the verge of the precipice” (p.145). It is plain that the SSP leadership had already lost. The scene conjures up the pathetic isolation of the Left Opposition in the Russian Communist party in the later 1920s as the new order cemented its complete dominance. And like that opposition some in the leadership were even shouted down. “When Colin…called for Tommy to abandon his defamation case, the barracking began. Several people leapt to their feet, interrupting manically and screaming him down” (p.146). Why was this allowed?
A male delegate screamed obscenities in the face of Frances Curran MSP. “When Carolyn Leckie spoke…her words were drowned out in a cacophony of bigoted abuse. One delegate, who later became a prominent member of Tommy’s breakaway party, stood in front of her as she spoke, shouting, ‘Liar! Liar! Liar!’ while making repeated stabbing gestures towards her” (p.150). Why was this allowed at a National Council meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party?! Some SSP executive members’ speeches “could barely be heard above the howling jeers from the rent-a mob brigade” (p.150). Except that these were delegates of the SSP National Council not a street corner crowd; the SSP was obviously now deeply dysfunctional as an organisation, if it hadn’t been already beforehand. Sheridan laid most of the blame for his removal on some women MSPs, tapping, McCombes says, into a vein of misogyny running through the SSP (p.147). When recounting how his friends would not hear of him raising the affidavit after the National Council McCombes says (p.153), “half the party had turned into a lynch mob…” So, what kind of people made up “half the party” all along? Or, what was the internal culture of this, the party of the working class vanguard, all along?
The executive call for continued defiance of the courts was defeated by 82 votes to 67…“weeks of intricate and dramatic discussion about how to protect the party from the imminent hurricane had now been turned over…People who had – in some cases without a second thought – voted to send me to jail had now flipped upside down because Tommy had told them to” (p.150). McCombes continues (pps.150-1):
The decision was to prove the most catastrophic ever made by the SSP. If just eight people had voted the other way, I would have stayed in Soughton Prison for as long as necessary”, says McCombes. “The pressure upon both sides to back down – or at least to come to some kind of agreement – would have become almost irresistible. The calamity of the 2006 defamation case, the full-scale perjury investigation that followed and the tearing apart of the most successful socialist project in Europe would never have happened. But from the moment those minutes were handed over to the News of the World’s legal team, there was zero chance of the newspaper backing down. Why would they when they now had documented evidence of Tommy’s admission that he visited Cupids with Anvar Khan and others?”
…Surely Tommy Sheridan would now understand”, says McCombes, “that his case was doomed?… It seemed like an act of heroism. But it was a hoax – a cruel, devious and manipulative swindle. His call to release the minutes had not been honest, heroic or brave. His undeclared new strategy had already been plotted out. He would go into court to denounce the minutes as a forgery and impugn the integrity of the national secretary, Alan Green, the minutes secretary, Barbara Scott, and any other cited EC members who dared to defend the legitimacy of those minutes.
At the end of the National Council meeting an SWP Motion was voted through without discussion, mover or seconder (again, how could this be tolerated?) supporting Sheridan’s libel case. “There was no hint in the resolution”, writes McCombes (p.152), “that ‘full political support’ should include perjury, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and rewriting the history of the SSP, but that was how it was later interpreted by some people”.
The Scottish CWI, which had opposed the legal action, now published an article in The Socialist (newspaper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales) supporting the National Council’s decision and describing McCombes defiance as courageous but “frankly irresponsible” (p.152). With the clarity and literary flair displayed throughout Downfall McCombes comments: “The stance of both the CWI and the SWP was based not on reason but on crude self-interest. By now, both organisations were in a wooing war over Tommy’s hand in political marriage and it was a sorry sight to behold. Both groups were only in the SSP in the first place because there was nowhere else for them to go. Yet together they swung the vote, setting us on course for catastrophe. The party was now in danger, not from external enemies but from a rampaging egomaniac astride two wooden horses” (pps.152-3).
“With the defamation case scheduled to start on 4th July…The Party was now in the condemned cell, not because of politics or grand principles but because of a tawdry tabloid sex scandal” (p.155). At a mid-July SSP executive meeting “Alan Green opened a discussion on how we should collectively respond…Tommy and his allies had voted to hoist the white flag and capitulate to the News of the World …once you’ve surrendered, you can’t then un-surrender”. It was agreed that “In response to direct questions in court, those cited should not lie or commit contempt of court”. Seventeen supported this, including a CWI member, two voted against, Lynn Sheridan and an SWP member, and another SWP member abstained.
“Then we made a serious tactical error”, writes McCombes (p.155). We should have taken that resolution to the full National Council meeting…the following Sunday where we would have carried the vote hands down.” McCombes reasons that it was one thing for people to argue for abstract political support for Sheridan’s legal case but that only the diehards would argue for SSP members to lie in court and face jail sentences. The experience of the previous National Council meeting would not inspire confidence that the SSP leadership could win anything “hands down”. “But Tommy made representations to Alan Green, asking for the resolution to be withheld from the National Council…We were too obliging. After the previous National Council meeting, no one had the stomach for a rerun.” Were they outwitted by Tommy Sheridan again, were they too obliging or, as is implied in the admission that “no one had the stomach for a rerun”, did they see that the Sheridan camp would bully out truthful answering in court as they had bullied in support for taking the case to court?
The libel trial, 4th July-4th August 2006
The libel trial began on 4th July 2006 and “for the next five sweltering weeks, Scotland’s media would be transfixed by the daily torrent of scandal gushing out of the cramped courtroom” (p.157). SSP executive member Allison Kane was the first witness. Mike Jones, QC for the News of the World “directed her to the minutes of the November 9th 2004 meeting. In a process he was to repeat over and over again in the next few weeks, he worked his way through the content of the document paragraph by paragraph. At each point, Allison confirmed the detail set out in the document…She provided no elaboration – just a straightforward, factual response to each of the questions” (p.158).
“The press gallery listened to her evidence with incredulity. For the past 18months, Tommy has spun and woven an assortment of fairy tales to explain his resignation. Most of the Scottish media had lapped up his version of events…” (p.158) “We already had a sketchy picture of Tommy’s secret behaviour but it was like an incomplete join-the-dots children’s puzzle. Over the next few weeks, more and more connections would be made and a clearer picture would begin to emerge” (p.159).
Ironically the evidence indicated that the News of the World would not have named Sheridan as the mystery MSP in the original Cupids story. Anvar Khan had opposed his name being used and she, the sex columnist of a sensational tabloid, had refused £30,000 from the Daily Mail for the story of her trip to Cupids. It was Sheridan’s outing of their affair, in order to date it before his marriage by placing it in 1992, rather than 1994-2002, that caused her to name him to the News of the World editor. Even then the News of the World could not name him as the Manchester man as he “had already initiated legal proceedings over the [second] story” concerning the Peterhead woman (p.161) – a story Sheridan could far more easily have pooh-poohed and let pass, but for which he thought he was on better legal ground precisely because of the lesser evidence.
The second SSP woman activist, the Danish woman, whose name had been given to the News of the World to deflect attention from the first, corroborated Anvar Khan’s evidence in most details (as did the phone records). She described her affair with Sheridan since 2000, which began in the unequal circumstances of a volunteer turning up at SSP HQ to help out in an election campaign being taken on, “to show her the ropes”, by the party’s charismatic leading figure. This young woman testified unwillingly, was plastered over the tabloids, was questioned by Sheridan – who was by then conducting his own defence – on the intimate details of their relationship, was dumped by her boyfriend after the trial and returned to her native Denmark “broken and humiliated by her ordeal” (p.165).
The evidence of the woman from Peterhead, the woman in the second 2004 News of the World story, a story which most people dismissed as “utter pish”, to use Tommy’s phrase, was disturbing and not unconvincing, though it was short on corroboration and she had finally accepted £20,000 for the story. Another witness had been so outraged by Tommy Sheridan’s denial of this story that she rang the newspaper. Sheridan had told the press, “I have never had an affair…after 1992, there are no affairs. I will take on anybody who wants to allege otherwise” (p.175). But this witness had gone with two friends to a hotel party in June 2002. She told the court, “I got the shock of my life at the scene I witnessed” (p.175). She called her friend who saw “Tommy Sheridan having sex with a female on the bed, and another man sitting on the side of the bed putting a condom on”. The woman in the bed told them later that she was “involved in prostitution” (p.176).
Following her phone call the News of the World tracked her down mysteriously and leaned on the three women for their story, for which they were given £1,000 each for their expenses, though they refused £5,000 to be photographed outside the hotel. (On page 177 it says they received £10,000 each, but the figure reported from the court evidence, on page178, and used elsewhere, is £1,000.) However their account confirmed a story Keith Baldassara had been told at the wedding of Sheridan’s brother-in-law about the previous night’s stag escapade.
One of the three women told the court she and her daughter subsequently “suffered repeated harassment and constant intimidation from friends or associates of Tommy Sheridan”, her windows had been egged and they had eventually moved home (p.179). She then told the court of a suggestion to her that she could get “between £200,000 and £300,000” if she told a rival newspaper she had lied (p.180). Sheridan’s lawyer accused the first woman, who had made the original phone call to the News of the World, of having served eighteen months for fraud. She appealed to the judge. The lawyer was unable to document the allegation and the media were forbidden from reporting it (p.182). (The Law Society investigated the incident and reported to Sheridan’s solicitor. The witness was denied the report of the investigation she had requested because she was not the solicitor’s client. She asked Sheridan to let her see it. He refused [p.183]).
The next day the court heard that Sheridan had dispensed with his whole legal team, barristers and solicitors. The Daily Record’s headline the following day was ‘Tommy Drops His Briefs’. Taking up the cudgel Tommy Sheridan demanded of the witness, “How much were you paid by the News of the World?” (p.184). She acknowledged she received £1,000 and, when pressed, said she had given it all away. He went on ask her humiliating questions about the sexual details of the night in the hotel.
As the trial moved from sleaze to snooze, for most people, with the dissection of backroom committee meetings and the illumination of political factionalism, “for those thousands of people in Scotland who had been active in the socialist movement, this dimension of Tommy’s case was more shocking by far than the salacious revelations that had the tabloids drooling. Here was the most famous politician in the country accusing his own closest colleagues of the socialist equivalent of high treason” (p.186).
McCombes was the second SSP witness. He began by saying he was there under “the strongest possible protest”, that the News of the World symbolised everything he stood against and that he had “no wish to take sides in this dispute” which he regarded as “a squalid little squabble which should have been settled by one or both parties” (p.187).
For his marvelous eloquence the judge reminded McCombes that he was not at a public meeting and his role was to answer questions! Sheridan’s barrister Richard Keen QC, still in situ, first questioned him about the ‘Lovers Plot to Axe Tommy’ story in the Scottish Daily Mirror of 18th November 2004. McCombes suggests, plausibly, that Sheridan had a hand in the headline, and less plausibly, as part of a long-term strategy to manufacture a plot at the top of the SSP to topple Tommy. This may now have been the outlandish case being made by Sheridan but McCombes does tend to ascribe to, the admittedly razor sharp, Sheridan the ability to instantly lay down plans that would unfold in the far future.
Keith Baldassara read verbatim notes of his exchanges with Sheridan about the issues over the years. McCombes suggests the shock this must have meant for Tommy’s lawyers. The SSP witnesses had not provided pre-trial statements because they considered themselves witnesses for neither side. So now the lawyers were “beginning to discover that maybe there was more to this case than met even the highly trained legal eye” (p.188).
Tommy, now cross examining, accused Allan Green, the SSP national secretary of “concocting” a “document [the executive minutes] that was as dodgy as a ten bob note”. Actually ten shilling notes were legal tender. When he repeated this “over and over again” Green counterattacked with a “quiet ferocity”. McCombes quotes it (p.188) and that quote is worth repeating for its summation of much of the entire episode:
I’ve always given you what I considered to be the best advice I could. I tried to talk you out of an action that would be highly risky for you. And now you turn around and accuse me of a monstrous frame-up. It’s appalling. I can hardly believe you are doing this. Like yourself, I have devoted my entire adult life to building the socialist movement. I have carried out to the best of my abilities the tasks I have been asked to do by the party. And now you think I am dispensable, and now you think you can lie and make such accusations. It is shameful, Tommy, shameful.
Just before SSP convenor Colin Fox was called to the stand he received a text from Sheridan forwarding a message from Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT trade union which was affiliated to the SSP, which said, “Never mind these scabs, Tommy, we’re right behind you” (p.189). Creepiness upon creepiness.
“Perhaps the most poignant testimony of the entire trial was provided by Barbara Scott, who had taken the minutes of the meeting, by hand, in an A4 notebook. She had a well-deserved reputation for being conscientious and meticulous and had taken minutes at the highest level within private and public sector organisations. Now Tommy was accusing her, in front of the whole nation, of behaviour that would have her blacklisted by every employer in the country for the rest of her life” (p.189). Tommy: “Miss Scott, I would put it that you have colluded to undermine me by concocting this dodgy minute”. She hit back: “I am absolutely incandescent with rage that you would say these minutes are concocted because you know as well as I do they are the truth”.
Repeatedly throughout Downfall McCombes provides paragraphs that encapsulate the case, sometimes repetitiously but mostly by illuminating from different aspects. On page 190 he writes:
Outside the court, within the socialist movement in Scotland – and even more so in England – there was no shortage of armchair perjurers ready to condemn those who, in a real courtroom, in front of a real judge and facing a real jail sentence, were not prepared to offered themselves as martyrs. But even then, they missed the point. The stand taken by the majority of SSP witnesses was not driven by fear of the courts and even less was it driven by jealousy of Tommy’s status. This was about ethics and morality. To corroborate Tommy’s version of events, it was necessary to brand those who told the truth as liars and perjurers. We were acting in solidarity – with each other and with women [witnesses] who were being falsely accused of perjury”.
The News of the World lawyer questioned Sheridan, going through the eleven SSP witnesses one by one, asking if they had lied in court. To each name he answered “yes”. He added, “Each and every one of them gave perjured evidence”, and continued, “We are in the midst of a political civil war and, in pursuit of that strategy, they have been willing to commit perjury”. McCombes remarks, “We were indeed in the midst of a political civil war – one that had been declared by Tommy against the rest of us. Because we had refused to commit perjury” (p.190).
The few SSP witnesses who gave evidence for Sheridan claimed that his version of the executive meeting was correct but would not accuse the others of perjury. On the fourteenth day the minutes leaked to the News of the World were introduced for the first time since day one. Ten SSP witnesses had been questioned in the meantime, including the two people who had taken and then written up the original minutes, without reference to the alternative ones. Lord Turnbull, the judge, asked Sheridan, “and why didn’t you ask Barbara Scott [the minutes secretary] about it?” (p.191). “I forgot about it”, Sheridan replied. “In retrospect I should have raised it.” He withdrew the document.
He then asked the SSP witness, who was appearing for him, “Do you think a sensible person would visit a swingers’ club with a News of the World journalist and then tell a meeting that there was no possibility that it would get out publicly?” (p.191). McCombes comments: “If Tommy had been a fictional character in a movie, it might even have been possible to admire his brass neck. Now he was trading on the outlandishness of his own behaviour, exploiting his own downright recklessness, knowing that, sometimes, things can sound too crazy to be true.”
In the perversity and the clarity contrasted above, one amplifying the other, we have a puzzle to add to all the strangeness of ‘the Tommy Sheridan story’. OK, we can accept that like Dorian Gray’s companions who wondered amicably about his extraordinary well being, Alan McCombes had no notion of the portrait in the attic. But according to McCombes (p.156), “Tommy and I had worked together like brothers right up until November 2004, eighteen long months earlier”. You have, on the one hand, someone as crooked as the brass necked interrogator above. And, on the other hand, someone as penetrating in his gaze, and as fluid in his articulation of, the above head wrecking headstand uttered in open court. How could they work together “like brothers”? As the back cover blurb says, McCombes was Sheridan’s “closest political associate for over twenty years”. A person does not get as twisted as the “sensible person” in the court question quoted above, in eighteen months.
McCombes was not just blind to Sheridan heretofore; he intensified, as SSP press co-ordinator and author, the spotlight on Sheridan, and even hid his own light in order to do so. If one lesson is that Alan McCombes has an unintended and indirect responsibility for the creation of “Tommy the Terminator” (p.292) – a responsibility I think generally acknowledged in this, I think, honest account – another lesson is that if “the very best” can produce such untended results the rest of us had better think as much as we can about our activity along the way. All this mayhem arose where there was a highly conscious political leadership with its own organised tendency and reflective journal in the SSP. A little more discussion in “city centre backrooms” would not go astray on those of us fumbling for ways forward for our own left.
Again Tommy’s supporters were less than willing to accuse colleagues of outright perjury. The future national secretary of Sheridan’s breakaway organisation, Solidarity, at first said he couldn’t remember McCombes saying what the minutes said he said on 9th November 2004, and which McCombes had confirmed under oath. After the judge sent the jury out and spoke behind closed doors, the witness agreed when the court reconvened that “If he [McCombes] said it [to the jury], then it’s true, yes” (p.193).
McCombes comments that this “provided a glimpse into the absurdity of the argument that we should all have gone into the witness box and lost our memories. One by one, we would have proceeded into the witness box, the leadership of a political party with six MSPs and 150,000 voters, to tell the court and the assembled national media, ‘Er…um…eh…Your Honour, it was all just a big misunderstanding, as result of which we sacked the most charismatic party leader in Scotland…er…by mistake’” (p.193).
The next witness for Sheridan, a leading member of the SWP, challenged the authenticity of the original minutes, saying that minutes “generally run to two or three lines which describe the decisions made, sometimes with the initials of those present” (p.194). McCombes says that the minutes for the executive for the three years the witness had been on it usually ran “not to two or three lines but to two or three pages”. They contained the full names of those present and usually “a full explanation for any decisions”. Moreover, says McCombes, this theoretician “would probably have on his own bookshelves such tomes as Minutes of the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which runs to over 500 pages of verbatim reports of every word uttered” (p.194).
The Highlands organiser for the SSP testified for Sheridan. McCombes explains that the organiser “had unconditionally supported our ultimatum to Tommy [in November 2004] to come clean, keep quiet or resign” (p.195), a succinct summary of original leadership response to the scandal. The organiser concluded the first minutes were fake but when asked if the SSP witnesses had lied and forged he answered, “I have no way of telling whether they are mistaken, whether they are deluding themselves or whether they are lying” (p.196).
Sheridan’s wife Gail claimed the Danish woman activist, with whom he had allegedly visited Cupids, told her at an SSP conference that the News of the World had offered her money to say she had an affair with Sheridan. The activist was recalled and denied she was at the conference, a denial the conference records backed. McCombes suggests Gail confused the activist with a third SSP activist with whom Tommy Sheridan had a long term affair (p.200). Gail testified that on the night of the hotel romp Tommy and the groom had played Scrabble!
Sheridan himself was called to the witness box. He had phoned Cupids at 11.40 pm in November 2001, but this was to ask, he said, if any journalists had been asking about him. He had phoned the Danish SSP activist eighty three times in 2004 to discuss the Danish minimum wage! (p. 202). Denmark doesn’t have a minimum wage.
On pages 202 and 203 McCombes summarises Sheridan’s case into seven essential points: a News of the World vendetta; delusory inventions of the Peterhead woman; a fiction from Anvar Khan; an SSP heave against Sheridan; documents forged by the SSP; an SSP-inspired invention of an affair by a grassroots member in the north-east of Scotland and the conscription of two friends to corroborate her; a fabrication by two women of the hotel incident.
Sheridan’s 45-minute closing speech to the jury – which he could make as he was now representing himself – was “scintillating” (p.203). He wept. “Again and again, claims McCombes, (p.204), “he hid behind the mind-blowing outrageousness of his own behaviour”. He quotes Sheridan to the jury: “I fancied a wee bit of swinging but I didn’t want anybody to know about it…And just to make sure no one found out, I invited the sex columnist of the News of the World …that doesn’t make me a swinger. If it’s true, it makes me an idiot” (p.204).
Whatever. But on the second day of the trial a free lance journalist and NUJ activist had given some hearsay evidence (pps.159-160). He got a tip off from a “100 per cent reliable” contact when he worked in the Evening Times. It was as far back as 2001 when his contact spotted Tommy in Cupids. The journalist also testified that his contact had told him just months earlier in 2006 that he had recognised Tommy again in another “swingers’ club”, La Chambre in Sheffield!
Mike Jones QC for the News of the World spoke for three hours and “laid bare” Sheridan’s case. Read the short extract on page 205 and make up your own mind. The lawyer noted Sheridan’s claim that eighteen witnesses unconnected to the News of the World would commit perjury to bring about his downfall (p.206). The rhetoric won though. The jury found, by seven to four, the politician had been defamed and awarded £200,000 damages.
McCombes comments that there was no verdict that would not have been disastrous for the SSP. “The only outcome that would be more catastrophic than a defeat for Tommy Sheridan would be a victory for Tommy Sheridan because the price of that victory would be the annihilation of the SSP and the destruction of the reputation of dozens of honest men and women” (p.207). Colin Fox issued a press statement rejoicing in the jury’s verdict. McCombes and three MSPs issued one saying the party faced another ordeal from the News of the World appeal, that Tommy had “lied his way through this court case” and that they would resist “any attempt to revise the SSP’s history” (p.208).
Immediately after Tommy’s victory speech outside the court the Perth rugby team bundled him into a waiting car. They’d been hired by the Daily Record who, for a £20,000 fee, hid him and Gail in a hotel suite for the next four days (p.210).
Most of the press went to town. One Sunday Mirror columnist spoke of “the cancer at the heart of the SSP, the factionalism, back-stabbing and nastiness”. The columnist named three women SSP MSPs as “self-obsessed individuals who put themselves first” The jury had seen “only underlying malevolence”, even though one of the three had never given evidence. Another Sunday Mirror columnist called them “scrubbers” and wrote: “Like the jury, I just didn’t believe that ramshackle procession of SSP idiots who went to court to knife him in the back” (pps.211-2). The Sunday Herald attacked “the sordid reality of ultra-left politics” and contrasted Sheridan’s seriousness and “homework on committees” in the Scottish parliament. McCombes points out that before the other SSP MSPs were elected Sheridan was a poor attender and stood down from his only committee after missing every meeting in 2001-2002.
The Daily Record published Sheridan’s outpourings, some of them high-octane, from the luxury hotel (pps. 212-3). On 7th August the Daily Record carried the photographs of the four MSPs who had contradicted Sheridan, with “scab” stamped across each one. McCombes says it “was more damaging than anything that had ever been published in the News of the World about the antics of Tommy Sheridan” (p.217).
In yet another restatement of the SSP’s case for testifying how they did, he writes (p.217-8), “What kind of socialist party would gang together to destroy the reputations of a group of women [the non-political women and rank and file SSP members who gave evidence] whose only mistake had been to cross Tommy Sheridan? If every last member of the SSP had lied through their teeth to prove that Tommy was a paragon of virtue and fidelity, these women would have been turned into objects of public ridicule and contempt”.
The Bollocks of Henry the Eight
At this point in the narrative McCombes does some ratcheting up of the verbals himself as he explores Tommy Sheridan’s psychological and moral condition (pps. 219-221). He makes a point too about the political condition of the SSP and “the crux of the divide” in the party. “For some, the great leader was so revered that his reputation had to be defended at all costs and, if that meant lies, fraud and character assassination, then so be it” (p.221).
Celebrity supporters of the SSP denounced the SSP leadership. And George Galloway, not up to now a great SSP fan, said, “Tommy will have to put to the sword and expel those involved in this conspiracy towards him” (p.223). The SWP called on “these News of the World witnesses” to resign from the SSP. “Not to be outdone”, says McCombes, “their CWI rivals called for the suspension of all those ‘political scabs’ who in court had carried out the decision taken by the SSP executive” (p. 223).
The United Left platform was, writes McCombes, a “large and diverse grouping within the party” (p.224) which “had played a critical role in supporting the party during its worst-ever crisis (p.226). “It had initially taken shape as a counterweight against those regimented factions who were intent on turning the SSP into dogma-ridden replicas of themselves. The United Left was simply a space where people who actually believed in the SSP project could meet and discuss the party’s progress without being harangued by messianic zealots” (pps.226-7). J Scotland and Ireland always had a lot in common.
McCombes says he attended his first meeting of the platform (the SSP’s term for a tendency, affiliated group or faction) on the night of the verdict and that he never joined the organisation (p. 224). The platform he was a member of – and which had disbanded the previous March – the International Socialist Movement – is not mentioned in Downfall. His point of not joining the United Left platform may have been to remain identified with the SSP centre and leadership, but it is also consistent with his aloof strategy of not putting the full story before the membership early on.
This he now set out to rectify. On the day after the verdict, in the teeth of a hangover, he completed a 12,000 word statement, ‘The Fight for the Truth’, a blow-by-blow account of the 18-month saga, printed, it seems, as the last pages were still being written, for distribution to the party’s 3,000 members. Up until then, he tells us, most members “had heard only bits and pieces of information. Now, for the first time, they had all the facts at their disposal” (pps. 225-6). Not a claim to winning tactics methinks. By no means was this literary marathon too little, but it was rather late. No wonder the SSP leadership was on a hiding to nothing.
The United Left accepted that it was better to stay with the party and fight but individuals and clumps of members were already leaving. It was Sheridan, though, who broke from the SSP. On 16th August 2006 he announced to the media that he was convening a meeting to decide on “a new movement”. Before the meeting it was already named ‘Solidarity’ (p.227). On 20th August the SSP executive released a statement on Solidarity which was both a measure of the situation and of the – by now freely expressed – strength of feeling about it (p.228):
This is nothing but a vehicle for the out-of-control ego of one individual and is based on the fiction that Tommy Sheridan has been the victim of a conspiratorial frame-up by his own party. He has now lost comprehensively because the membership of the SSP were not prepared to sign up to Tommy Sheridan’s fictitious rewriting of the party history, nor were they prepared to stomach Tommy’s thuggish and insulting behaviour.
Actually the Solidarity meeting was larger than the SSP rally held the previous evening. McCombes claims that “the solid backbone of the party – the Central Belt activists, most of the veterans of the big political campaigns…the Scottish Socialist Youth movement and the women – had overwhelmingly opted to attend the SSP rally” and that “a large part of the Solidarity rally had been made up of curious members of the public…”(pps.228-9).
McCombes points out that Solidarity had “no discernible differences with the SSP” in policies or programme (p.229). “It reminded me”, he says, “of the rhyming taunt the Irish playwright, Brendan Behan, once directed at the Church of England: ‘Trust not the alien vicar/ Nor his creed without reason or faith/ For the foundation stones of his temple/ Were the bollocks of Henry the Eight’”.
Sheridan claimed the new party was on course to win power in Scotland. “The SSP had built the most successful socialist project to the left of Labour in any part of the UK [he will insist on using this term – DD] since the 1930s”, comments McCombes, reminding us of what the left, and especially that left looking to SSP-type parties, has lost. “But”, he continues, “we were still in the foothills” (p.229).
Dashiell Hammett in Glasgow
Yes, there’s a chapter titled ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’. But, no, it’s not the dragging out of a cliché, but a chapter of the story that demands this title. It is a chapter in which – through the events themselves and then the writer’s telling of them – the crime thriller is converted into the film script. It begins, less than a week after the trial, with the hard-bitten ‘newspaperman’ – Bob Bird, then editor of the Scottish edition of the News of the World – receiving a phone call. A problem with this script is that it comes complete with dialogue that, albeit plausible, McCombes could have no exact record of. “Is that Bob Bird [Sam Spade!]? I’ll get straight to the point. I’ve got something that might interest you. Something explosive connected with the Sheridan trial” (p.231). Maybe Bird did record the call and let McCombes hear it?! Then the scene definitely moves into film noir: “The caller refused to identify himself but suggested that Bird should jump in a taxi [not a cab?] immediately and head for Mosspark Station… Somebody will meet you there and tell you where to go’”.
Yet what followed really was sensational, beyond the dreams of the most intrepid tabloid hack and especially the editor of a rag that had just been stung for two hundred grand. First came an incredibly elaborate relay of Bob Bird being passed through the mean streets of Glasgow – especially incredible when it is related in sharp dialogue. Bird is eventually led to George McNeilage who had “been involved politically with Tommy for twenty years” (p. 232). Bird must have been even more astounded than you will now be to find that George McNeilage had a video tape of a conversation between McNeilage and Tommy Sheridan from November 2004 in which Sheridan poured out a foul mouthed admission of all he’d later denied in court! Beginning with a quip that he hoped he was not being recorded, he said his only regret was that he had “owned up to these c—s” on the SSP executive (p.233).
McNeilage had been losing faith in Sheridan and the ‘scabs’ article in the Daily Record had been the tipping point. Bird asked how much he wanted for the tape. McNeilage wanted “poetic justice” – £200,000.The visuals were practically non-existent on the video, just a fleeting glimpse of Sheridan. The tape was brought for forensic phonetic and acoustic examination. Three international experts confirmed it was Sheridan’s voice on the tape.
The News of the World carried the story on 1st October 2006 with pages of transcripts from the tape. The spokes included, “Humungous fucking mistake…confessing something in front of 19 fuckers”. “He [Keith Baldassara] told Alan about me going down to Manchester in 2002…And I said to him [Alan McCombes]: ‘Look, stupid, shouldnae have done it. Done it once before in ’96 and went back in 2002’”. “So I say to Alan and Keith that what I want to do is to face it down. I think they’ve got fuck all on me. I think if they had anything on me they’d have used it long before now.” (pps.236-7). News of the World readers could call to hear some extracts of the tape. Two days later Sheridan told a Solidarity rally in Dundee, “Just as Freddie Starr did not eat his hamster, this video has been concocted” (p.241). “When this history of this story is written”, he said, “I think you’ll find MI5 was certainly involved”. Sheridan claimed that the American voice recognition expert who had verified the tape was “a friend of George Bush, a friend of the CIA”.
Though McCombes says the timing was purely coincidental, the day after the video was revealed the police announced an investigation into whether had been perjury at the defamation trial. The SSP were the obvious suspects. As McCombes puts it: “Beyond the narrow circles of those who had been close to the trial, few people doubted the word of the smooth-talking media celebrity. The verdict of the jury had exposed the ragbag of backstabbing politicians, gold-diggers and damaged women who had testified against him as liars” (p.243).
But cracks were not long in appearing. Straight after the verdict the News of the World repeated the allegations, added a few extra and headlined its editorial “See you in court again, Tommy”. The minute taker tracked down the original handwritten notes for the 9th November 2004 executive meeting. She asked “a couple of SSP members” for advice on what to do. McCombes does not say if he was one of her advisers, but she gave a copy to the Sunday Herald, the newspaper that had been obliged with the affidavit. She also handed the notes to the police (p.244). Six Glasgow SSP activists, including old friends of Tommy, wrote to the SSP newspaper stating that Tommy had admitted to each of them separately in February 2005 that he had visited Cupids with the News of the World journalist and that he had admitted it at the executive meeting of 9th November 2004. Tommy’s ‘scabs’ rant had motivated them to go public (p.244).
McCombes says that much of the media were terrified of the six Glasgow activists’ story but happy to carry articles hostile to the SSP witnesses. But he tells us that no fewer than four major Sunday papers ran it. One hostile article was by the principal solicitor for BBC Scotland, in an unspecified Sunday paper, who spoke of a “very unimpressive” list of witnesses who had refuted Sheridan’s case, “prostitutes and ex-prostitutes and people who wanted money for their stories” (p.245). McCombes retorts that, “Eighteen witnesses unconnected to the News of the World had contradicted Tommy’s evidence. None was a prostitute. One had been involved in prostitution many years before. Three had been paid for their original stories. Fifteen had neither received nor asked for payment” (p.245).
The trial judge ordered an investigation into perjury within a week of the verdict. McCombes says “we” (presumably the SSP leadership majority) expected it would last six months, leaving time to rebuild the party and maintain a foothold in Holyrood after the May 2007 elections. It took two years and £2 million. Sheridan had always cultivated good relations with the police. “At the start of the investigation”, writes McCombes (p.246), “the officers …were clearly treating the SSP witnesses as potential suspects…Every day, they were learning a little bit more about the real Tommy Sheridan. Eventually, the CID officers let it be known that they no longer considered us suspects but victims”. Meanwhile Sheridan moved further into the world of celebrity. He began a three-hour phone-in show, ‘Sunday Morning with Citizen Tommy’ on Talk 107 radio.
It had looked initially that the SSP would recover from the 2004 crisis. “The annual conference in February 2005 had been the biggest in the party’s history. By the spring of 2006, we had made a full recovery in the opinion polls…But over the summer of 2006 [the time of the libel trial], the party had been ravaged. Where there was once a single party of the Left, we now had two bitter rivals fighting for the same space. The number of socialist activists in Scotland had tumbled like the stock exchange in a slump. And the 150,000 people who had voted socialist just three years before were now deserting the cause like civilians fleeing a war zone.” Thus McCombes on page 247, in another general, and well-written, statement of the significance of the entire episode.
Two security scares centred on Sheridan in March 2007. A primitive listening device was found in his car and ‘hostile forces’ had been intercepting his mobile phone. Two years later the News of the World phone hacking scandal would break, but McCombes argues that the newspaper – at the time co-operating with the perjury investigation – would not have tried it on Sheridan. Just last May 30th Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor, was arrested for suspected perjury in the second trial that was yet to come. This has reawakened the ‘Tommy is innocent’ chorus and shown how this civil war is far from forgotten on the British left, and its factual details far from settled. In the recently published account of the hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, 2012), the authors remark that the role of Coulson and the newspaper could well have made the verdict in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial unsafe. McCombes reports that a Lothian CID officer, when asked by an SSP witness if he had any idea who was behind the fake minutes sent to the News of the World , replied, “The same person who bugged Sheridan’s car” (p.249).
John McAllion, an ex-Labour MP who had joined the SSP, warned in the Scottish Left Review (November 2006) that “progress has been put at risk by the setting up of a rival socialist party that can only divide the Scottish Left and return it to its pre-1999 political impotence and irrelevance” (p.250). Sheridan made a ban on airguns a pillar of his campaign for the Scottish Parliament election on 3 May 2007. McCombes throws in that after the Dunblane massacre he (McCombes) called for a ban on handguns in the Scottish Militant (I thought they were banned in Scotland?). The CWI leaders in London refused to print it in “the UK edition” because “the workers will need arms to fight the revolution” (p.251). Now the CWI were right behind Sheridian. McCombes gets lots of digs in, with relish but not without historical value. The front page of the Scottish Mirror (19th January 2007) predicted that Solidarity was “on track to win seven seats – one better than his record high of six with the SSP” (p.251).
“Inevitably”, writes McCombes, “the battle between the SSP and Solidarity resulted in mutual annihilation” (p.251). The six SSP MSPs were reduced to zero MSPs for both parties. The vote dropped from 130,000 in 2003 to 45,000 for the two parties! The SSP received a third of this. Sheridan claimed Solidarity had come from nowhere to the biggest socialist party in Scotland. With another clever simile McCombes says, “he was like a reckless driver, lying in his hospital bed after a smash, gloating that at least he was less seriously injured than the guy he had crashed into” (p.252). Sheridan had been an elected full-time politician for 15 years, since 1992. “It was the end of an era” (p.252).
In June this extraordinary character made a comeback to charity boxing and was hammered in the ring. In August the Edinburgh Fringe Festival featured The Tommy Sheridan Chat Show. It was “more Bernard Manning than Mark Steel”, quips McCombes (p.254). The critics panned it.
The police investigation was exceptionally extensive and many details from it appear here (pps. 254-6). The Sunday Herald of 20th May 2007 reported that Cupids staff had told the CID they had been offered cash for non-cooperation with the investigation. The police created an interactive, computerised reconstruction of the room in which the executive met on 9th November 2004. Sheridan’s press campaign continued alongside. He told the Sunday Express (5th August 2007), “I will never get over the betrayal, over the fact that former friends and colleagues lied in court”. And he told the Times, the Murdoch flagship, “I hope that the police can prove these people lied”, claiming again that the SSP had “fabricated these minutes” (p.256).
Talk 107 had a scoop on Sunday 16th December 2007. Tommy was arrested as he left the building at the end of his show. The police searched his house. He was interviewed for eight and half hours, including breaks, and said from the steps of the police station he believed he was “the victim of a political witch hunt”, and that his “house has been ransacked, my wife has been traumatised” (p.258). The police claimed his wife had been friendly and made them tea and biscuits. Among the items taken by the police from Tommy’s house was a note in his own handwriting address to the SSP’s convenor and trade union organiser “asking them to testify that he had denied going to Cupids but, because the SSP was close to bankruptcy, it couldn’t support his legal action”. This note McCombes likens to “the armed robber who handed the bank cashier a note scrawled on the back of an envelope – with his own name and address neatly typed on the other side” (p.259).
In December 2007 the only elected Solidarity councillor, elected in the Sheridan heartland of Cardonald, announced her defection to the Labour Party. She had told everything she knew to the Labour council leader’s press aide, and then to the police. The next day the largest group in Solidarity, the SWP, published a damning critique of the breakaway, concluding: “We had hoped Solidarity could be that alternative”. McCombes tells us: “The SWP retained formal membership of Solidarity but, from then on, effectively ignored its existence”. Any topical parallels spring to mind? McCombes’ verdict on Solidarity at this point is that “the party was over” but that Sheridan needed to keep a political machine going (p.260). He comments on the unravelling (p.260-1):
Tommy’s supporters had labelled his defamation action a ‘titanic struggle’. There was nothing titanic about it, other than the fact it was ultimately doomed. It had been a petty scrap over a nineteen-month-old fish-and-chip wrapper that would have been long forgotten if he taken our advice back in 2004.
Tommy’s supporters were stunned by the arrest, McCombes tells us. They’d been assured the investigation was going nowhere. Though he didn’t loose them all. A ‘Defend Tommy Sheridan Campaign’ was established. McCombes says that most of the supporters’ names “seemed to be members of the CWI- affiliated Socialist Party in England” and the names of some of the celebrities that had supported him during and after the trial were “glaringly absent” (p.261).
In the heat of the narrative McCombes neglects to mention when Sheridan was actually charged with perjury but in February 2008 “another six witnesses were charges with perjury” (p.262). Four former members of the SSP executive, who had given evidence supporting Sheridan’s account of the November 2004 meeting, were arrested, or “politely requested to call” to a police station “at a time of their convenience”. They were a former MSP, two former SSP regional organisers and an SWP member. McCombes reckons they were just gullible but need not have told us “he felt pangs of pity” when he heard the news.
Then Gail Sheridan was charged with perjury. McCombes claims Tommy Sheridan had tipped off the Daily Record a week before Christmas as a pre-emptive strike so his supporters would be prepared for the imminent arrest. The “dawn raid” heralded in the pre-report was “emotive stuff” (p.263). He began to refer to the original raid as a “dawn raid”, though it had been made at one o’clock in the afternoon An East coast wag suggested that the sun rose pretty late over Glasgow in December. Gail’s father was also arrested. Or rather invited to the police station to be interviewed. Father and daughter were offered a side entrance but Tommy and Gail went arm and arm through the media throng out front. After their release Tommy made a speech about “harassing a family” (p.264).
Gail was also charged with the theft of miniature bottles of spirits from her employer British Airways, who suspended her. A ‘source close to the family’ said Gail certainly thought now that there was a witch hunt against her. The cops weren’t being vindictive, claims McCombs, but “were specifically looking for miniatures as part of the perjury investigation” (p.264). They had heard from Anvar Khan, the News of the World journalist in the Cupids trip, that Tommy had brought ten BA miniatures to her flat a few years earlier. Tommy insisted his fling with her predated Gail; the miniatures corroborated Anvar Khan’s testimony. The charge was dropped and the BA suspension lifted.
The ability of one – onetime outlandish – individual to manipulate the media and public opinion is limited, though there seems to be something to Tommy Sheridan’s reach at this time. The Daily Telegraph said, “Scottish justice is getting a very bad name from the Sheridan case” (p.265), while George Galloway suggested that it could become “Scotland’s Dreyfus Affair” (p.266). McCombes points out that the mysterious appearance of forged documents in the Sheridan Affair “had been for the purpose not of incriminating him but of framing his political opponents”.
McCombes counters the claim that Sheridan was got at in revenge for the defeat of the Poll Tax, with an interesting argument that the British state operates in Scotland through the security forces, rather than the legal system which is accountable to the Scottish Parliament. His allied argument is plainer: that the current governing party was the SNP which had supported the anti-Poll Tax campaign. The Justice Minister had been “one of the most combative advocates of mass non-payment” (267).
At a rally of the Defend Tommy Sheridan Campaign in Glasgow in June 2008 the Scottish Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Kenny Ross, accused the SSP witnesses in the defamation trial of siding “against the movement. It’s a sordid story of disgrace and dishonour – they are class traitors”. McCombes says these class traitors had campaigned for the firefighters when they were under siege in their strike a few years earlier, and even earlier again in 1977 (p.271). The rally was also addressed by Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. Against this formidable array, McCombes now has the opportunity to state, once again, and once again from a new angle, the SSP case (pps. 272-3):
An injustice had certainly been committed during the defamation case but Tommy Sheridan was the perpetrator not the victim…These were real people he had trashed in court and was still trashing two years on, aided and abetted by trade union, showbiz and media hangers on. Many months after the court case, some of us were still being assailed in the street by total strangers demanding to know why we had concocted such vile lies about Tommy Sheridan…But the bottom line was that, if Tommy was allowed to walk away untouched by justice, he would be unstoppable. History would be rewritten to his script and the reputations of honourable people would be forever stained. In the eyes of the general public, the judicial system carries a lot of weight. Only after the Birmingham Six and the Guilford Four were exonerated in a court of law did their status change from convicted terrorists to innocent victims…As things stood, Tommy was an honest man and we were liars, perjurers and fraudsters. That false perception had even subverted democracy in the 2007 Scottish election, when tens of thousands of SSP voters deserted the party, believing or at least suspecting that we had committed systematic perjury to destroy our former leader. In that election, Solidarity polled twice as many votes as the SSP.
“After the arrests, the tide began to turn”, says McCombes. The first electoral test of this came in the Westminster by-election in Glasgow East on 24 July 2008. The question is nowhere asked in Downfall whether the SSP should have been standing against Solidarity in this or the previous election. Though it is not like, say, the Socialist Party standing against the SWP here, which has happened both in combat and, no earlier than last year, by arrangement. In Glasgow in 2008 there was no chance of Solidarity standing aside, so the question was one for the SSP. But hardly, in reality, a question for them either, as that would have simply conceded to the usurper and removed the SSP from the map, for a time at least. The left vote was squeezed anyway in Glasgow East in a first-past-the-post contest between Labour and the SNP. But the SSP took fifth place, “ahead of Solidarity, the Greens and two independents”, says McCombes (p.273). “More significantly, the combined SSP and Solidarity vote was higher than the vote for the Liberal Democrats and five times greater than the vote for the Greens. It offered a poignant glimpse into what might have been”. Yes, it did. However the respective results for the SSP and Solidarity were 2.1% to 2.0%. The SSP ran Francis Curran, a former MSP. Solidarity ran, not Tommy Sheridan, but Tricia McLeish, a trade union activist who lived in the constituency. McCombes is making the most of things here.
Around election time Sheridan made a guest appearance on the BBC Radio Scotland comedy programme the Ellis and Clarke Show. He recited seaside-card smutty lines and traded on his notoriety, being billed as ‘Tommy What a Whopper Sheridan’. In March 2008 his show at the Glasgow Magners Comedy festival had been scaled down from a week to two nights. In April 2008 his radio show was axed. In October 2008 he began a law degree. On 14th December the News of the World had another scoop about Tommy Sheridan: “Sheridan’s In The BB House!” (p.274). Yes, you saw it coming; Sheridan had signed up for Celebrity Big Brother.
The day Celebrity Big Brother began the CWI faction of Solidarity, which McCombes denotes as “by now Tommy’s closest political allies”, issued a statement saying: “We believe that Tommy’s decision to take part in CBB is a mistake that will damage his standing”. The programme, it said, sought “to denigrate and humiliate those who took part” (p.276). McCombes can’t resist another dig, a fairly irresistible one as it is: the CWI could have asked why he was appearing on a show produced by Endemol. In 2007 Silvio Berlusconi had led a buy-out of Endemol. McCombes then gets bitter at his onetime comrades in the CWI, relating in the process the SPP case again (p.276):
They had no problem with Tommy cavorting around swingers’ clubs while using his wife as a political accessory. They had no problem with him patronising commercial sex clubs while legislating in Parliament on lap-dancing and prostitution. Then they cheered him like excited schoolchildren when he took out a high-profile court case to deny his behaviour. They applauded his skills as a liar and condemned those who refused to join in the game. They raised not a murmur of dissent when he falsely denounced his own party leadership as scabs, perjurers, forgers and plotters. They aided and abetted him when he split the most successful socialist unity project in Europe. But now he really had damaged the socialist movement…
Big Brother was as excruciating as you would expect. Gail was signed up as a Daily Record columnist for the duration. In ‘the house’ Tommy befriended the rapper Coolio while “Anti-bullying charities condemned his [Coolio’s] lewd behaviour and offensive language to some of the women on the show” (p.277). He gave the Daily Record his exclusive inside story of ‘the house’, saying “Coolio was head and shoulders above everyone else” (p.279). McCombes comments that, “the big brother debacle was just the latest and for many people, the most visible episode in the long, slow degeneration of a political icon who had once signified something that mattered in Scotland” (p.278).
Just days later a preliminary hearing for the perjury trial was announced for 26th February 2009 with the trial itself following later in the year. McCombes expresses sympathy for the others charged, a little too patronisingly perhaps, and now issues as strong a denunciation of Sheridan, or anyone, as you can get. “This was a man without remorse, without heart, without soul. His socialism was skin deep, his compassion as phoney as canned laughter” (p. 280).
Sheridan was not withdrawing from public life. “Over the next year or so he would stand for election under three different party labels” (p.280). In May 2009 he challenged any “well-known Scot” to fight him in a charity boxing match. McCombes gives a catty description of the YouTube footage of the bout with a Radio Clyde DJ (p.281).
Sheridan stood in the European elections of June 2009 for the ‘NO2EU’ alliance. ‘NO2EU’ was closely associated with the CWI/Socialist Party but also supported by the RMT trade union. He startled people on all sides by calling, “despite our bitter relations with the SSP leadership” on the SSP “and all other left and progressive groups and unions to join this Platform” for a united campaign (p.281).
McCombes says that “on the face of it, this was a volte-face of seismic proportions”. Also, on the face of it, it was a plausible case for left unity. ‘NO2EU’ may not have been itself the most inclusive coalition but it was there, it was wider than Solidarity as such, and co-operating with it was not, on the face of it, giving oxygen to Sheridan’s organisation. On the other hand, Sheridan was quite central to the ‘NO2EU’stand in Scotland and the CWI were his main ally in Solidarity. Sheridan was second on its Scottish list. McCombes points to Sheridan’s and Solidarity’s clear agenda in the 2007 elections of smashing the SSP. Sheridan had refused to call for second preferences for SSP candidates. He recalls that “an internal Solidarity memo set out the twin aims of the party’s  election campaign – first, to get Tommy elected in Glasgow and, second, to siphon enough votes away from the SSP in the rest of Scotland to ensure it lost all its four seats” (p.281). This is a quote from McCombes’ paraphrasing in Downfall which, for such a damning exposure, really should have quotes from the actual text of the internal memo. If it’s accurate this conscious wrecking exercise would also have been subscribed to by the SWP and the CWI.
McCombes says, “some of us now suspected he [Sheridan] was driving forward his own hidden agenda”. That, rather than moving on from 2007, he was attempting to drive a wedge between SSP activists – who would be attracted to unification in “the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s”, and “the old leadership of 2004, who would be key witnesses in ant future perjury trial” (pps.281-2). The instincts of such SSP activists should not be lightly discounted. Against a positive response he argues that “most SSP members knew instinctively” that the “shattered edifice” could not be glued back together again. In the near future, when the truth emerged, if Sheridan and the SSP were all together again, and the walls came “tumbling back down”, it would “bury us all in the rubble”. This is a strong argument which is more than can be said for his next one, that unity would require a discussion of the split but that “our legal advice” was that “any discussion about Tommy Sheridan and his behaviour would leave us open to contempt of court proceedings” (p.282). This is a bit lame. Couldn’t they get a room for the talks?
If it was necessary that the SSP should have vied for votes with ‘NO2EU’ in the 2009 European election it was a necessary evil. Both in the division it presented to the working class and in the result. ‘NO2EU’“crashed into twelfth place with less than 10,000 votes”. The SSP came “tenth with just over 10,000 votes. In 2004, the united SSP had polled 60,000 votes. With the free market economy in meltdown, we should have been celebrating the biggest surge forward in the history of Scottish socialism. Instead, we were all trapped in the wreckage” (McCombes, p.282).
The preliminary hearing was delayed several times until 13th July 2009. The indictment listed 16 statements Tommy had made during the defamation trial. He had also been charged with subornation over the handwritten statement found by the police in his house, which he had asked the SSP convenor, Colin Fox, to sign in June 2006 (p.283).
The case against Gail concerned her diaries and further investigations which indicated that she had not been, as she had testified, with Tommy in November 2001 when he phoned Cupids or in June 2002 on the night of the hotel romp. Nor had she spoken to the Danish SSP activist at the SSP conference in 2005 (p.283). McCombes says that for all his political and PR savvy Sheridan “had left behind a trail of evidence including handwritten notes, diaries, telephone record and emails” (p.284). Both pleaded not guilty to all charges. The trial was set for January 2010. It was reported in September that Sheridan had replaced his QC and an October hearing postponed the trial, to allow his new team to prepare. A further hearing in December failed to set a new trial date (p.285).
Tommy Sheridan stood in the Westminster by-election in Glasgow North East in November 2009. He claimed he could win the seat. The Daily Record “ran six major articles sympathetic to his campaign”. McCombes says, “During the heyday of the SSP, before the Cupids crisis, we could only have dreamed of such favourable publicity in Glasgow’s biggest-selling daily newspaper” (p.285). The turnout was the lowest in Scottish history. Tommy lost his deposit, receiving just 794 votes, 4% of the total, and coming in fifth, behind the British National Party. Four years earlier he was guaranteed 20% in any Glasgow seat. But Sheridan had outpolled the SSP candidate. By how much we are not told here. Actually the SSP received 152 votes and 0.7% of the vote. Whatever imperative there had been in previous elections to stand in the same contest as Solidarity – or any other party perceived by the electorate as left socialist – what good was there in chasing a vote – even if there had been an open field – that had slumped to less than 1%?!
Sheridan stood again in the Westminster election in May 2010 in his home territory of Glasgow South West as the candidate for the Trade Union Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a sequel to ‘NO2EU’which also involved the SWP. It was his sixth party label in 15 years. In a first-past-the-post Westminster election he would not have been a favourite for the seat, but had things not changed, and given the banking collapse and the Westminster scandals, he might have been a contender. He had once taken 20% of the vote in a general election in this constituency. He came in fifth with 931 votes and 3%. This time he beat the BNP. Across Scotland the SSP and TUSC had at least managed to avoid standing against each other, except in one case, not Glasgow South West. They had each stood in ten constituencies and, we are told (p.286) “the left-wing vote was split almost exactly down the middle between” them. It was if you discount Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, which received about half of what each of them got. But the total for the two (SSP and Solidarity) was “under 7,000 1, compared to over 70,000 back in 2001”! (p. 286). McCombes says, “The Scottish Left had paid a heavy price for Tommy Sheridan’s defamation victory over News of the World. Tommy Sheridan was now damaged goods – but so too was the post-Sheridan SSP”.
At another hearing in March 2010 a new date of 21st September 2010 was set for the trial. The Crown witnesses now numbered 230. More hearings took place in July and August 2010. Tommy’s team attempted unsuccessfully to get the videotape disallowed as evidence, as a breach of his privacy. McCombes scoffs at Sheridan’s respect for privacy and how he had “pressurised several women into revealing intimate details of their sex lives” at the 2006 trial (p. 287). When Gail sought pre-trial statements from 150 Crown witnesses the trial was put back again to 4th October 2010.
The Trial of the Decade
Chapter 28 on the ‘Trial of the Decade’ opens with a condemnation of Sheridan if anything more damning than McCombes’ previous characterisations. “No lie had been too outlandish, no smear too vile, no tactic too underhand. Scotland’s most famous socialist had shown himself capable of the kind of ruthless selfishness usually associated with cold-blooded capitalist tycoons” (p. 298).
McCombes says that a week before the trial Gail’s legal team “were in a state of growing alarm” that she would go down (p.289) – without saying how he might know this. “Behind closed doors the Crown office put an offer on the table that 99 per cent of people in Tommy’s situation would have devoured like a starving dog thrown a string of sausages” (p.290). If he pleaded guilty to the Cupids-related counts the hotel sex party counts would be dropped. This would allow them to drop the case against Gail, which was heavily based on her alibi for that night. The Crown would seek an 18 month sentence, guaranteeing his automatic release after nine months. He might even get out in five months with an electronic tag. McCombes comments that all this exposes the claim that Tommy was being persecuted by the state. His rejection of the deal calls forth another printed assault on Sheridan, for “the callous cynicism of a man prepared to use his wife as a human shield” (p.290).
At the first day of the trial in the narrative the author goes for the jugulars of Sheridan and the left groups who buttressed him. Sheridan was no David “but a corrupt politician out to destroy truth” (p.291). What he says about the SWP and the CWI, I had better not quote for fear that this reviewer will be thought to have an agenda besides completing the commission to review these two books. Let the reader of Downfall make up his or her own mind.
McCombes says that for this trail the SSP witnesses took a different approach. During the first “we were all still members of the same party and we had been reluctant witnesses, providing only the bare minimum of information, under protest. It had been the legal equivalent of a work to rule. The full scale of Tommy’s treachery had only revealed itself during and after the 2006 courtroom battle. Now we knew that we were up against Tommy the Terminator, a man quite prepared to orchestrate the biggest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history and put dozens of innocent people into the dock for crimes he had committed [Whew! – DD]. This would be a no-holds-barred fight to the finish” (p.291-2).
New evidence was presented in the first week. The handwritten notes of the November 2004 minutes and the George McNeilage video tape. This was the first time the full 40-minute tape was heard in public and it was the good-quality original tape (p.293). On the Monday of the next week the judge announced that Tommy Sheridan had sacked his QC again and her two junior counsels. Tommy was back as the conductor rather than a spectator. The SSP witnesses stood solid. The Danish SSP activist, a reluctant witness in 2006, had to return from Denmark to be cross examined in intimate detail by Tommy Sheridan. She added to her evidence a sketch of the Sheridan’s bedroom (p.294).
Sheridan made two tactical mistakes: demanding that the seven witnesses who had already testified to his QC be recalled to be questioned by himself; and that McCombes’ 2004 affidavit to the Sunday Herald be produced in court. The SSP witnesses went on the counter attack. Former MSP Carolyn Leckie told Sheridan his case was like Kenneth Williams’ quip as Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo (which was named the funniest film one-liner in a 2007 Sky Movies Comedy poll), ‘Infamy, infamy they’ve all got it infamy’ (p. 294).
Alan McCombes now had the affidavit, which had expired. He says he didn’t want fellow-journalists to go to jail for refusing to reveal their sources. He also wanted to explain why “he had acted to protect the SSP by signing” the affidavit in November 2004. Finally, while the affidavit was minus the personal detail in the minutes it was consistent with the SSP account of the meeting and undermined Sheridan’s claim that the record of the meeting had been falsified in 2006 (p. 295). McCombes handed the affidavit over to the court on the Friday morning of the third week.
Sheridan suggested to a recalled SSP witness, Allison Kane, the party treasurer in 2004, that the McCombes’ actions had been “cynical in the extreme”. She hadn’t known about the affidavit, and replied that she understood why McCombes had did it. “These were exceptional circumstances and exceptional measures were taken by all of us. He did what he did to protect the party. You scurried off and spun a web of lies to the press. If he was cynical, so were you” (p.295). The prosecuting counsel put the document up on a screen and she confirmed its contents paragraph by paragraph, confirming that the SSP version had been basically consistent for four years. She said to Sheridan towards the end, “You must be the unluckiest person in the world because everybody you have met in the last 20 to 30 years is either lying or conspiring against you” (p. 295-6).
Sheridan accused another SSP witness of being a “trained liar” because he had been a member of the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party – as he himself had been, and four of his own witnesses! He raised the conviction of his old friend George McNeilage, who made the videotape, for housebreaking when he was 16. Sheridan dropped his claim that the tape had been spliced together from various sources and now he accused McCombes “of writing the script and recruiting an unidentified actor to impersonate him” (p. 297).
The jury did not know that Sheridan’s legal team had tried to get the video tape ruled out as evidence – evidence that, if it was a fake, would have been welcomed as a clincher. The jury did not know either that, by a strange twist, the evidence of the experts that had positively identified Sheridan on the tape, the real clincher, could not be presented “because of a new legal ruling made by the law lords in late October, three weeks into the trial” ! (p. 297). The unrelated Cadder Ruling “barred any evidence from being presented in court that had been obtained by police without a solicitor present” (p. 297). The police had recorded an interview with Sheridan which linguistic laboratories matched with the voice on the McNeilage tape. They took photographs which experts had matched to the stills of the tape. But none of this could now be heard in court.
McCombes summarises the “political conspiracy” theory in all its ludicrousness. “We had forged documents, fabricated evidence, perverted the course of justice and committed collective perjury in the Court of Session. We had concocted a video-taped confession that had fooled the world’s foremost forensic experts, altered hard drives and made entries in Tommy’s diary in his own handwriting. We had faced down an intense, four-year investigation by police and prosecution services, and framed innocent people for the crimes we had committed. Then we had gone to the High Court in Glasgow for a repeat performance, this time with ten new witnesses in tow, to back up our fictitious version of events. Along the way, not one person had broken down or changed their evidence. This was one helluva plot” (p.298).
McCombes outlines the evidence of the non-SSP witnesses who testified “to corroborate our lies”. The man who had travelled to Cupids in Manchester with Sheridan in late September 2002 and “pinpointed the exact date”. A Glasgow woman testified that she had gone to Anvar Khan’s flat with Tommy and his brother-in-law. The friend of Anvar Khan who testified that Khan and Sheridan had came out of a bedroom in her flat on the afternoon of 11th August 2003. She was living in California when she heard the verdict of the defamation case. She contacted the Scottish police and said, “I think I may have some salient information” (p. 298-9). A barman from Cupids told how Sheridan signed in under his own name on the night of 27th September 2002. One of the women in the group was “Scandinavian”. Another Glasgow woman told how she had invited Sheridan back to her house after meeting him in Cupids. The company included a woman whose name she thought was Anvar (p. 299). McCombes continues (pps 299-300):
“By late November, six people had sworn under oath that they had either been with Tommy in the club or had seen him there. Five people had corroborated [the Danish woman’s] testimony that she had been involved in a relationship with Tommy. Another five witnesses had backed up Anvar Khan’s story. More than 20 SSP witnesses from all over Scotland…had testified how they had heard Tommy confessing to having visited the Cupids swingers club. A number of other witnesses…were dropped by the prosecution to avoid duplication…the jury had heard the voice of Tommy Sheridan on a video tape confessing to visiting Cupids and to having had affairs with [the two women]. His telephone records proved that he had telephoned the two women regularly, including the evening before the swingers club visit. He had directly phoned Cupids several times…”.
There was speculation that Sheridan was about to concede. McCombes says Sheridan should not be underestimated and quotes a journalist about him: he had “balls of steel and a street intellect that is utterly formidable” (p. 300). Sheridan wasn’t ready to give in yet. McCombes is ready though to go all the way in his characterisation and denunciation: “By this time, many of us who had been close to Tommy in the past were convinced that we were dealing with a disordered personality…In the strange universe he inhabited, Tommy Sheridan was a superior being and everyone else was there to submit to his will…an extreme form of grandiosity and a narcissistic sense of entitlement that meant he was able to use, abuse, and discard people for his own ends without a glimmer of guilt or remorse. The ice in Tommy’s veins… where other people had a conscience, he had a black hole.” It looks like this could be accurate but, again, Alan McCombs was also “his closest political associate for over twenty years” (back cover blurb) and few did more than he did to build Sheridan into the face and foundation of the SSP.
Four weeks into the trial a Renfrewshire businessman who had made himself scarce at the time of the 2006 trial “suddenly came clean”. He gave a statement confirming that Tommy Sheridan had been at the hotel party. The two women who had seen Sheridan there were finally vindicated. The businessman said he met Sheridan at the Baby Grand bar before going on to the hotel. Sheridan’s diary for 11th June 2002 had an entry: “9 p.m. Baby Grand – carry out”. McCombes says, “This should have been the final straw for Tommy’s beleaguered defence. But suddenly everything started to go awry for the prosecution” (p. 301).
Gail’s QC “set about” this witness. The businessman would not, for some unspecified reason, reveal the identity of a long-term partner and only did so after he was threatened with contempt. The questioning then revealed that the pair had met at another swingers’ club in Manchester. This might have revealed the businessman as a bit shifty but, as McCombes says, it did not negate the substance of his testimony (p. 303). Moreover, there was a line of witnesses, including the two women who had gotten an unexpected eyeful, waiting to talk about that June night in the hotel. Yet as soon as the businessman’s testimony was over the prosecution called for an adjournment and the hotel chapter was dropped from the charges. McCombes suggest that the crown planned all along to drop these charges, because then the perjury charge against Gail could be dropped. He suggests three Crown motives: Sheridan had rejected the deal that would have gotten Gail off the hook: she would have to go down with him if she maintained her evidence. Now the human shield was gone. The Crown was reluctant to send the mother of a young child to jail and, thirdly, taking Gail out also removed her top barrister, Paul McBride QC (who, incidentally, died last March, aged 48).
A problem remained. Gail could be called to give evidence if she was no longer Tommy’s co-accused. Many believed her testimony had done most to swing the jury in 2006. So the charges were maintained until the defence rested (p.303). A week later the Crown withdrew a range of charges against Tommy, including subornation.
Sheridan claimed witnesses had been paid for their stories. McCombes calculates that of the 35 prosecution witnesses in this second trial, who were not News of the World employees, only two had ever been paid by the newspaper. Sheridan had been paid £20,000 by the Daily Record for its exclusive access after the first trail.
The first disclosures of the News of the World phone hacking scandal – accessing the voice mails of a member of the royal household – had led to the resignation of the editor, Andy Coulson. “For Tommy the timing was perfect”, suggest McCombes (p.305). He had the audacity to call Coulson, and the London police Superintendant who had led the investigation, to give evidence. Coulson had been the editor during the defamation trial and had authorised the £200,000 payment for the McNeilage tape. Sheridan now sought to place himself among the hacked and also, suggests McCombes, to present himself as “a white knight…protecting individual privacy against the ruthless dirt-digging of the tabloid press”. McCombes lays in: “Yet to protect his own privacy, Tommy had ripped open and laid bare the most private lives of dozens of others…decades-old convictions; illicit affaires, both real and imagined; drug habits, both legal and illegal; and personal medical records…the action he had begun back in 2004 had by now wrecked marriages, destroyed careers and damaged some people’s mental health” (p.305). Some more substantiating detail from McCombes here would be helpful. Coulson insisted that before 2006 the SSP had never come to his attention.
Sheridan announced that he himself would not be taking the witness stand. He could lead his own witnesses, cross-examine Crown witnesses, address the jury himself, all without having to be questioned about his defence. Solidarity members, friends and family testified for him. Some said it was not Sheridan’s voice on the tape, and two witnesses had been separately watching the Ryder Cup on one of the Cupids nights: one with a member of the travelling party the other a trekker himself. Before the summing up the prosecution announced that Gail was acquitted of all charges. It did not believe her innocent but it was “not in the public interest” to proceed.
The Crown prosecutor, Alex Prentice, summed up for two and a half hours. He went through the evidence, the overwhelming common sense case, which you will a fair idea of by now. You can read the substance of the summation on pages 308 and 309. You can weigh it, and McCombes’ strong debunking of Sheridan’s summing up, against the full flood of denunciation, the deepest possible condemnation, of Sheridan to which McCombes now gives vent in the final pages. Sheridan spoke for five hours. He had the brass to use the failure of the Crown to authenticate the McNeilage tape forensically. The jury would not have known – as Sheridan would have – that the law lords had just forced the Crown to shelve the absolutely positive forensic evidence.
McCombes asks whether Sheridan had convinced himself that all that had happened hadn’t happened. “Either way, it was a sobering realisation that this man, who had once personified socialism in Scotland and been respected in all quarters for his integrity, could lie to Olympic standard”, says McCombes. A sobering realisation: not just that a socialist leader could be so two-faced but that he – or indeed anyone – “once personified socialism in Scotland”. What would the Edinburgh socialist James Connolly have made of it all?
The jury delivered its guilty verdict on the day before Christmas Eve, 2010. There is no point in quoting at length McCombes’ comments on Sheridan at this point. ‘The Tommy Sheridan Story’ is still a battleground. I have quoted similar pen portraits often enough here when they packed less high explosive. If Sheridan is “someone inhuman” (p. 311) his crimes were not actually of the same order as ‘crimes against humanity’. Sheridan’s supporters used far stronger language. The directly political point is worth repeating though: “If the verdict had gone the other way….Tommy Sheridan…would be reborn as a political hero. The genuine socialist Left in Scotland would be set back by a generation” (p. 311). But isn’t that what has happened, do I hear you say?
This high temperature Le Carre, mixed with court room drama, even has a twist in the end. McCombes now drops a bombshell of his own, which came as late in reality as it does in the book. He reveals that during October and November, as the trial raged, representatives of the SSP had a series of meetings with representatives of Solidarity, the SWP and the CWI (“including at least four defence witnesses”) to discuss a plea from Sheridan’s political allies “to join with them in a socialist alliance or coalition to fight the Holyrood elections” (pps. 211-2).
McCombes then goes into an argument for the SSP’s position on the unity proposal (rejection), and, yet again, on the entire episode. The latter seems on firmer ground than the former. But perhaps it is only the starry-eyed who place the highest premium on left unity. As McCombes says, “The SSP was created to bring about socialist unity in Scotland” (p. 312). And here were the rest of the left “pleading” (McCombes, p.311) with them for an alliance, despite everything! Ah but it’s the ‘despite everything’. McCombes also says that the other groups “refused to explain how they could reconcile this call for unity with their public denunciations of a party which they alleged had orchestrated a monstrous plot to frame up and imprison their leader” (p. 312).
What existed between the SSP and these particular groups at this time was not division but war, not pointless policy and organisational distances but existential struggle. Someone going by the rote of the latest unity turn from afar might squeeze everyone into a coalition and continue, simultaneously, to flail, as if nothing had happened, at their allies in another place, journal or recruitment forum. It is not unknown. But what real unity can be forged, as McCombes asks, “through duplicitous wheeling and dealing with groups who continue to justify corrupt political gangsterism” (p. 312). Or, at least, continue to facilitate it.
“The taunt that by opposing Tommy Sheridan we [the SSP] were supporting the News of the World was just a variation on a rusty old insult…For opposing Britain’s war effort during the First World war…John Maclean and James Connolly were accused of being in league with the German Tsar”, McCombes says (p. 312), meaning the Kaiser. He says that some of Sheridan’s followers, “especially south of the border, clung to the infantile belief that his legal case was an extension of the class struggle” (p. 312). But none of them, he says, ever spelled out the alternatives to how the SSP acted. Were they to go to jail to keep “a pathological liar” out of jail? Or to restore Tommy Sheridan as leader, were they to confess to “a catalogue of crimes that we had never committed and hung our heads in shame for evermore?” (p. 313).
McCombes says (p. 313) he hoped that even now Sheridan would set the record straight. “It would end the surreal debate that was still rumbling in some quarters over his guilt or innocence.” Instead Sheridan spoke of an appeal. The arrest and charging of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson on 30th May last for alleged perjury in the trial spurred a fresh round of this debate, in all its ferocity, in at least one well-established, independent blog (Socialist Unity) on the British left ( http://www.socialistunity.com/andy-coulson-detained-by-strathclyde-police-for-perjury-at-sheridan-trial/#comments ). Speaking outside his home, Sheridan said he hoped the police action marked the first steps towards quashing his “unsafe and unsound” conviction (scotsman.com, 31st May 2012).
Then on 16th August last the former News of the World editor in Scotland, Douglas Wight, was arrested and charged with committing perjury in the Sheridan trial and conspiracy to hack telephones. One commentator on Socialist Unity said, “Drip drip drip – slowly the truth comes out. Surely there is no one left out there who now thinks this was ‘safe conviction’”. As I wrote this I heard on BBC radio news (29th August) that Bob Bird, former editor of the News of the World in Scotland, who was brought to hear the McNeilage tape, had been arrested and charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. Whereas Coulson and Wight were charged in connection with Tommy Sheridan’s own perjury trial in 2010, Bird was charged in connection with the earlier defamation case in 2006. The Chair of the Defend Tommy Sheridan Campaign, said (scotsman.com, 29th August 2012): “The fact that Mr Bird is now charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice over Mr Sheridan’s defamation action in 2006 – on the back of Andy Coulson and Douglas Wight being charged for committing perjury at Tommy’s trial in 2010 – shows that Tommy has been the subject of a long-standing and widespread conspiracy, which he and his supporters have long argued was the case.”
McCombes predicts (p. 313) that after the verdict “the floodgates would now open”. I don’t know, from this distance, if they have. The recent arrests have added to the confidence of some that the flood will engulf McCombes’ own side. McCombes says that Cupids was “just the tip of the iceberg”, and certainly we have been below the surface in Downfall. He goes on, “a few of us knew more than had ever been publicly revealed”, that “we had stuck strictly to what was relevant” to the two trials, and that, “far from being moral commissars, the SSP leadership had been laissez faire in the extreme about Tommy’s activities…given the seriousness of some of the allegations” (pps. 313-4). McCombes does not make it clear whether he is alluding to completely new allegations or to the many “activities” touched upon in Downfall without elaboration. It is not completely fulfilling his stated task “to bring out into cold daylight the whole sickening, sordid, destructive account” (Forward p. vii). Nor is it really fair to leave an impression that the reader maybe hasn’t heard the worst of it yet, or even to mention what is mentioned without some substantiating elaboration.
Before referring to McCombes’ final judgements the remarks of the judge himself in pronouncing sentence are both relevant and extraordinary in that they sound like they come from the Chair of some tribunal of the movement rather than from a bourgeois beak. “You led the Scottish Socialist Party to considerable electoral success…the abolition of warrant sales will become part of the fabric of Scottish social and political history…You brought the walls of the temple crashing down, not only on your own head but also on the heads of your family and your political friends and foes alike” (p. 315).
The lenient three year jail term put Sheridan in line for an eighteen month stretch and less with an electronic tag. His reaction (not in open court) to the sentence was, “Fucking result!” (p. 315). He was released last January after 12 months. “By the time he went to jail for perjury”, McCombes says (p. 314), “the one-time idol of the Poll Tax campaign had inflicted more damage on the Left in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch combined”. Whatever the actual scale, the damage was not confined to Scotland, crashing over as it did the hopes of socialists across Europe who pointed to the SSP as a model for a new relevant and successful radical left.
The real lesson is pointed out by Alan McCombes at the very end (pps.317-8):
The Tommy Sheridan story stands as a screaming warning to those who value personalities over principles. In these days of economic mayhem, savage warfare, climate chaos, rampaging inequality and raging revolt against tyranny, ideas matter more than ever. No-one wants to see politics dehumanised. But the message is bigger than the messenger…
His final condemnation of Sheridan, on the last page, is that Sheridan “had symbolised the noblest qualities of humanity …He was a fraud…his actions decimated the left and shamed socialism. Thousands were contaminated by the experience, their idealism corroded, their souls hardened by cynicism” (p.318).
Yet, he maintains, the SSP survived, battered but “still standing”. He says, “…it will take some time before the party recovers its electoral [and presumably its other – DD] strength”. Only a few of the 2004 executive remain in the leadership. Most, including himself, have “stepped down from the frontline to make way for a new generation” (p.318).
McCombes puts some blame on the “broadsheet columnists” for the fact that “there were still some people around who just didn’t get it” (p.317). “Guardian readers in England must have been left baffled” by the paper’s focus on the phone hacking “detours”, neglecting the full spectacular story. The last entrance must go to George Galloway. Speaking at a Defend Tommy Sheridan rally in February 2011 he attacked the SSP witnesses as “cowards”, “traitors” and “flea-infested rats” (p.317). McCombes suggests Galloway was looking for foot soldiers for his Holyrood election campaign. McCombes challenged him to a public debate on the facts of the affair. Galloway declined, though apparently without repeating his attack, saying he did not wish to be contaminated by the wrestle. Though he did wrestle the US Senate.
Downfall is extensively, though not exhaustively, referenced, especially from Scottish newspapers. An index would be useful. There is a blog of the complete daily proceedings of the perjury trial: The Sheridan Trial ( http://sheridantrial.blogspot.ie/ ) by James Doleman. BBC One television in Scotland broadcast an hour long documentary on the evening of the sentencing, The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan (23rd December 2010). It is on YouTube in several parts. An earlier documentary by BBC One, shown on the evening of the defamation trial verdict in 2006, does not seem to have found its way onto the web.
The reader might suppose that Downfall is the ultimate and definitive account of the Tommy Sheridan story, from the SSP camp anyway. Yet within a year an equally – if not more – thorough volume from a similar political, though more academic, perspective was published by SSP member Gregor Gall, Tommy Sheridan: From Hero To Zero (Welsh Academic Press, 2012). In Part 2 it will be reviewed and compared to Downfall.
* CWI: Committee for a Workers International, the international tendency to which the former Militant in Britain, now the Socialist Party in England and Wales, is an affiliate. The Socialist Party in Ireland is also an affiliate. The affiliate in Scotland is the Socialist Party Scotland (previously the International Socialists and CWI Scotland) which emanated from the minority faction of Scottish Militant Labour. This International Socialists is not to be confused with the SWP forerunner of the same name, or the SSP leadership (McCombes/Sheridan) platform of a similar name, the International Socialist Movement. Both the International Socialist Movement, now disbanded, and the International Socialists/CWI came out of a split in Scottish Militant Labour. Like McCombes I have used ‘CWI’ throughout to designate the group that has passed through these various titles. (Credit to Gregor Gall for some of this family tree.)
*SWP: Socialist Workers Party, the sister organisation in Britain of the SWP in Ireland and principal party of the International Socialist Tendency which has groups worldwide. Between May 2001 and August 2006 the SWP in Scotland became the Socialist Worker Platform in the SSP.
[End of Part One]
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