Tommy Sheridan: not the only sinner

Submitted by martin on 18 July, 2011 - 6:40

"Downfall" is the unfortunate title and story as told by Alan McCombes (AM) of the demise of Tommy Sheridan and the left in Scotland. The title - yes it’s the same title as the film about the last days of Hitler - is a clear signal to the reader about what's coming next. There follows a 318 page character assassination by a man whom AM himself describes as his “closest political companion for twenty years”.

In the introduction AM gives his reason for writing the book at this time. "The record has to be set straight and not by a detached journalist but by a central participant in the events at the heart of the story. Before the wounds of five years of conflict can even start to heal - truth has to prevail.” And what does the truth involve? "Truth means first bringing all the relevant information out into the open, in full and in context and then understanding the significance of that information ".

In the first chapter "The Graduate", AM recalls how he pushed for Sheridan to be taken on as [Socialist Party forerunner] Militant's youth organiser in 1986 - impressed by “his raw talent as an orator and his pulsating energy" - traits that were to prove central during the anti-poll tax campaign a few years later. But as early as page 4 we learn that “Tommy would never obtain the intellectual breath or depth of these speakers" - Jim Sillars and Jimmy Reid - or match the command of language of people like George Galloway and Tony Benn. Tommy was also a "consummate media performer”.

By page 5 TS is being compared unfavourably to the truly proletarian “Streetwise”, "Fearless" loyal to his Pollok roots George McNeilage and in contrast to the Stirling University graduate who by page 6 is dressing him (McNeilage) down for giving money to beggars and down and outs .But once Tommy had achieved fame this ideology would be abandoned in favour of supporting charities

We then learn Tommy converts from being a Celtic fan to supporting Rangers - an almost unheard of act of betrayal in Glasgow city. In other words this is a guy who never really understood loyalty. (Loyalty and disloyalty are words that are not used in the book but are absolutely central to its story).

AM concludes the first chapter by talking about the gains made by the Liverpool city council (xouncil houses) and the impression made on TS by Derek Hatton - "Both men shared an obsession with appearance ". There is no mention of the Liverpool fight ending in a defeat at the hands of the Tories or the fact that the Militant tradition consciously groomed a good looking, media savvy, suave dressing spiv and how this backfired on them in Liverpool, only for the mistake to be then repeated in Scotland... the second time as farce.

The first chapter is indicative of what is wrong with the book the whole way through. It is an attempt to blame the demise of the left in Scotland substantially on the actions of one man, sins of omission and bias.

AM states: “If the poll tax broke Margaret Thatcher, it made Tommy Sheridan, though not because of any strategic abilities but as a “front man". And, "There was no single architect of the strategy to combat the poll tax - least of all Tommy whose strengths were as a campaigner rather than a strategist ". However it is slipped in that AM wrote the strategy pamphlet in April 88 "How to fight the Poll Tax". By page 12 we are learning that Tommy is in fact a bit thick really - not understanding a joke made about him with reference to Narcissus.

AM later describes how he hastily put a copy of “Cosmopolitan” back into Tommy’s briefcase after it fell out on a train. By the aftermath of the defamation trial he has become “Tommy the Terminator”.

The truly bad choices and behaviour of Sheridan post 9 November 2004 and pain this has caused leads to an account in which AM telescopes back in time Tommy’s behaviour to show him being bad all along. So we get a story not of a good man going bad, but a of someone who was really always bad but became substantially worse. He was always self-centred, egotistical, vain and manipulative. It's just that we were a bit naïve about it and besides he was far too useful for us to have complained about these traits. It doesn’t square with how TS was really perceived prior to the crises by both party members and the public.

In contrast those who remained loyal to the SSP in its leading circles, Keith Baldassara, Richie Venton, Rosie Kane, Frances Curran, Catriona Grant, Eddie Truman, the first SSV Editorial Board, they are all described in glowing colours. There isn’t one word of criticism. There is an anecdote about Catriona Grant (ex- Chair of the Party and later United Left member) bailing Tommy out of a potentially embarrassing situation with a female only to get bad treatment from TS from then on instead of the expected gratitude.

AM recalls the attempts made both before and during the 9 November 2004 meeting to stop TS from suing the NOTW over pending allegations which were substantially true. Sheridan’s defy strategy and determination to sue let the NOTW in the SSP door as they could then cite documents and people as part of their defence. That creatied bad choices for those on the leadership – hand over minutes and incur Tommy’s wrath risking a split, or defy the courts and risk jail. Tommy’s determination to sue did set off a train of events that led to a very public civil war, the splitting of the left and demise of the SSP. AM’S tactical decision to not hand over minutes to the Court - to prevent Tommy going on the rampage inside the party – led to AM's jail sentence and allowed the police to ransack the SSP’s offices.

However a key responsibility is evaded. At the end of the “Behind the Scenes” chapter AM asks the key question “Did we create a personality cult around TS as some people later suggested”? And replies with a qualified no. “ Focussing on an individual keeps things simple for the media and makes it easier to connect with people and get the political message across.“ And he adds,“ But we went too far”.

Your damned right you went too far. It wasn't Sheridan alone who presented himself as a family man while seeing all sorts of women on the fly. The Scottish Socialist Voice carried a centrepiece spread of his wedding in 2000. Posters and leaflets carried his photograph, ballot papers gave the name as ' Scottish Socialist Party' convenor: Tommy Sheridan'. An image was created of a clean living physically fit, tee-total almost Messiah like figure whose only weakness was sun beds. And this created public image was milked to the full. The seeds of destruction had been clearly sown, partly by Tommy, partly by the media and partly by the leadership of the SSP and Alan McCombes. AM is trying to have it every way here - no innuendo intended.

And what of the synopsis AM gives of the key individuals. All of these individuals do have very real strengths and abilities but do they really have no weaknesses – Richie Venton? Eddie Truman? Were their respective roles really consistently positive and constructive from beginning to end? We are getting a very biased, good guys versus bad guys account here. And the good guys are really, really good and the bad guys (SWP, CWI and his Sheridan fan club) are really, really bad – the latter groups being “manipulated like marionettes” by the pantomime villain Tommy Sheridan .

The word pantomime was used by AM himself at the defamation trial but the book feels this way too. Loyalty is rewarded with praise and disloyalty gets punished with consistent vituperation. What the character assassination does is undermine the very real case against Sheridan and those who, as Alan McCombes says, opportunistically came to back TS - their own platforms and pet projects of extending Respect and the CNWP into Scotland using Sheridan as a vehicle coming first and last in their calculations.

AM states that the CWI's lining up with Sheridan was revenge for the break away from London years earlier. This maybe so and the CWI were certainly wrong to back Sheridan. But part of the bitter in-fighting between the ISM and CWI took the form of the then "Independent Socialist Scotland" policy of the Party becoming an "Independent Capitalist Scotland" line - an attempt to establish clear blue water between the ISM and CWI who had supported the original position. In other words they were consciously alienated by the ISM dominated SSP Leadership. The only good reason to have changed this policy would have been as a response to events in the real world - so it was a deeply unprincipled factionally motivated change. But alienating the “London-left “became an increasing feature in the party. It worked.

The SWP are slated throughout the book and as an organisation their role was truly terrible, though there were individuals who contributed positively to the SSP. But even here we don't get the real picture. Attempts to get the SSP to work more closely around concrete issues prior to their entry in 2001 failed in favour of Open Letters put out asking the SWP to join the SSP as a platform - the ISM dominated leadership believing that the SWP would never join - so problem solved. When the SWP turned around and said they did want to join there was visible panic in leadership circles. Negotiations were set up - would the SWP rock the boat on the Independence line? Eh, No. Do you think we're elecoralist, No. Reformist? Eh no. Will you give us money? Eh yes. Do you think the earth is flat? We do if you do.

The SSP leaders dealt bureaucratically with an SWP who are masters of opportunism and Stalinist methods. "Delegate-based conferences,” - something the leadership had been defeated on the previous year at Conference, were then re-introduced using the red-herring of the SWP entry as an excuse to consolidate control. There was to be no public paper sales for platforms of anything other than the Voice.

Getting people to pretend to believe in ideas they don't under threat of exclusion/expulsion if they rock the boat (the Independence line) and making special conditions for SWP entry was the wrong way to go about speeding up the process of Left Unity. It wasn't principled or wise. It guaranteed SWP members stayed loyal to their platform and alienated already existing platform members who were then subject to new undemocratic “guidelines”. But on these negotiations all AM says is that TS was keen to get them on board to get more Regional Organisers while he and Keith Baladassara were more “cautious”.

Relations with Galloway are also covered in the book but the party leadership had the same real political attitude towards Galloway that it had towards the SWP. Build ‘Respect’ – but not on our turf, welcoming a vote for Galloway in Bethnal and Green as a vote for socialism, inviting him to Socialism 2005 to speak. It wasn’t a consistently principled approach, but a quid pro quo tacit dividing up of the electoral turf. It didn’t work! Galloway denounced the SSP, sided with TS and stood for Holyrood in 2011.

After TS had rejected the choices options at the Executive, there are meetings with individuals in the media to limit the damage pre-emptively. A pattern emerged of an internal civil war being played out in the media. There were meetings with Paul Sinclair of the Daily Record, then with a “leading figure” of the Daily Mirror, the next morning – “Good Morning Scotland” – while the motivations for this look sound – to buy time and “put them (the media) off the scent“ a pattern emerged of internal problems being argued out in the capitalist press with members getting their information here rather than through the party’s' structures.

It’s clear from the book that AM and others just thought Tommy Sheridan too big to either discipline or go to the membership with relating the full truth about what was going on. One exception being Donny Nicolson – the then SSY Youth organiser who argued that TS should be “ instructed” to drop his case against the NOTW and not “requested” .This was correct given TS was never going to be treated like any other individual citizen by the NOTW even if he had sued the NOTW on an individual basis.” TS used the behind the scenes secrecy and softness of approach to his advantage.

AM and the two or three other people who really ran the SSP were hostages to a past strategy that had elevated TS above everyone else. The motivation of AM was to try and prevent a split at some point in the future - AM trying to protect Tommy’s privacy while also trying to pressurise him behind the scenes to drop the court case. Sheridan played for time hoping the NOTW would drop the story in the absence of evidence and manoeuvred.

There is a question from this part of the book (p78): “This was all becoming extremely messy and escalating out of control. The SSP executive had reluctantly accepted that Tommy would deny the specific cupids allegation if and when it was put to him. “ But I thought the whole origins of the conflict with TS was based on the Executive insisting that he tell the truth or said “No Comment” about a pending NOTW story?

AM then details all of Sheridan’s’ manoeuvrings and manipulation behind the scenes aided by Hugh Kerr to present the conflict as a plot to oust him by the female MSPS and make an alliance with the CWI and SWP probable. The response again was a press conference.

AM speculates “ Some people maintain that , if we had brought everything out into the open back in 2004, the party would have been spared the much greater trauma of the defamation trial and the police investigation Who knows? Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to know how events might have unfolded. Our enforced silence certainly allowed Tommy to scheme like a demon for the next 18 months, inside and outside the party”.

This touches on a bigger picture that AM does not talk about in the book:
The Militant tradition’s conception of socialism and linked to that the nature of party organisation. It is a from above, reform conception – the identification with Chavez, Castro, Guevara, and Morales being no accident. In this conception socialism is a kind of Stalinism with a human face delivered to the working class from above with Tommy Sheridan in the role of a Scottish Che Guevara. Populism, nationalism and reformism are mixed in a mish mash of bits and pieces of ideology coming from above. In this conception the leaders are central. The members are foot soldiers, there to do the donkey work, but not really to be trusted and certainly not the key to solving difficult problems.

Yet an educated membership who had been kept informed of events could have got the party out of the difficulties it was in. All attempts over the years to change that conception failed:

- attempts to get Marxist educationals off the ground by a cross section of the partyfailed
- attempts to get a more collective activist based approach to industrial work at branch level failed
- attempts to open up the SSV to real debate and discussion and to support every democratic advance were opposed by key figures on the leadership of the party. By the time some of them realised how vital the link is between having an educated membership and internal democracy it was too late- the party had split with key figures involved in pushing education, Joe Eyre, Gordon Morgan gone.

A radical education network was only set up in 2006, eight years after the party was formed. It was too little, too late.

All the murky events, Tree tops, Moat House, Cupids etc. are covered as well as AM’s motivations for the tactics employed in not handing over minutes, getting jailed, the contest for Convenor with Colin Fox as the Unity candidate ,the outcome of the May 2006 bloodletting council while AM was in Saughton.

Again much of this strikes me, with the information I know of, as credible. However again there are sins of omission. By all accounts – those loyal to AM and the executive gave as well as they got at the May 2006 bloodletting council which overturned the decision to keep the minutes confidential. In “Downfall “ it is only the SWP ,the CWI and Tommy’s fan club who behave outrageously. The SSP Discussion forum at the time made it clear both camps were involved, even though there clearly had been a pre-meditated agreement by the SWP to create an intimidating atmosphere.

Sheridan’s’ descent into a sad caricature of his former self by trying to maintain his celebrity status to help with his financial and legal problems also gets analysed - the Fringe Comedy show at the Festival, Talk 107 radio , Big Brother etc . It was sad to watch but was there really “no entertainment values what so ever“ regarding his unilateral and unwise decision to appear on Big Brother?

Other questions? Why is there nothing in the book about the stand-up row outside the Linlithgow NC between AM and Catriona Grant, provoked by Gordon Morgans’ question about how AM could square being one of the six people who had voted to give an outline of the 9 November meeting in the SSV at the time with his refusal to hand over the minutes .

AM denied that he was one of the six in the EC meeting who had voted for this. This led to a blazing row outside with Catriona Grant accusing AM of lying.

It looks very much like anything that would undermine the good camp; bad camp story is getting excluded. Is this the whole truth – warts and all? Did everyone really reluctantly go to the perjury trial having being cited? Didn’t Rosie Kane use her column in the record to “demand “a perjury investigation after the defamation trial? The emotions are understandable having being publicly wronged but the public nature of the arguments made the conflict ever more poisonous.

Why if George McNeilage acted completely alone in taping and selling the tape of Sheridan allegedly confessing to the NOTW as the book asserts did the Conference arrangements committee at the October 2006 Conference jump through several hoops to prevent a Workers' Unity emergency motion being discussed? The motion did not ask for McNeilage to be disciplined or expelled – only that the party distance itself from his actions in selling the tape to the NOTW for money. Are we really to believe that there was no collusion? There were “all is fair in love and war “and “discipline George? Give him a bloody medal“ comments being made at that conference – was that the attitude of AM and the Executive?

Is it really inconceivable that the state was not involved in any way? AM rules this out because of Sheridan’s’ conspiracy theory claims and attempts to use an institution for blame precisely because this can’t possibly be proven.

George McNeilage was clearly being protected. You might argue that by that stage, with people who tried to act with integrity facing jail over perjury and Tommy on the rampage after his victory in the defamation trial that collusion was warranted. But once a road starts to be travelled that involves trying to use the likes of NOTW, the police , the courts then there is only going to be one winner and that is them. AM concludes with “By the time he went to jail for perjury, 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”.

The truth is slightly more complex. In no other political tradition would a sex scandal in the modern age lead to the destruction of a whole party yet this happened on the far left. That tradition has to think about its culture – the mutual hostility, distrust, and lack of respect – the gang psychology that operates. It has to address that culture more fully than the SSP did and create educated, informed, rounded activists who are all important to the organisations’ work. But the left also has to create a culture where no one is indispensable or elevated into a Presidential role.