Peter Burton reviews Downfall by Alan McCombes
Alan McCombes describes Tommy Sheridan as his “closest political companion for 20 years”.
He met Sheridan as a young recruit to Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) in the mid-1980s, and worked with him in the poll tax agitation in Scotland (1989-90) which made Sheridan famous.
With the majority of Militant/SP, McCombes and Sheridan quit the Labour Party in the early 1990s, setting up Scottish Militant Labour in 1992, the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996, and the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998. McCombes and Sheridan split from Peter Taaffe and the SP in 2001, converting the SSP to a looser grouping.
In late 2004 McCombes and Sheridan fell out over Sheridan’s demand that the SSP back him in responding to a News of the World sex-scandal story by launching a libel suit (instead of just waiting for the pumped-up scandal to fade).
In August 2006 Sheridan won the libel suit, despite SSPers testifying against him, and split from the SSP, forming a new electoral front, “Solidarity Scotland” (no relation to this paper!). Then he was charged with, and in January 2011 jailed for, perjury. Meanwhile McCombes’s SSP, which for some years got 10% of the vote in Glasgow and organised maybe 3,000 members, dwindled to a small rump. “Solidarity Scotland” never really took off.
“The record has to be set straight”, writes McCombes, “and not by a detached journalist but by a central participant in the events at the heart of the story.”
In the first chapter of Downfall, McCombes recalls how he pushed for Sheridan to be taken on as Militant youth organiser in 1986. He was impressed by “his raw talent as an orator and his pulsating energy”. But as early as page 4 McCombes is being wise after the event. Sheridan was a “consummate media performer”, but “would never obtain the intellectual breadth or depth of”... Jim Sillars and Jimmy Reid.
McCombes notes the impression made on Sheridan by Derek Hatton, the leading figure in Militant’s control of Liverpool’s Labour council in 1984-5. Militant consciously groomed good-looking, media-savvy, suave-dressing spivs. That backfired on them in Liverpool as early as 1985; and then McCombes went on repeating the same approach for two decades more in Scotland.
“If the poll tax broke Margaret Thatcher, it made Tommy Sheridan”, writes McCombes, adding snottily: “though not because of any strategic abilities but as a ‘front man’... [his] strengths were as a campaigner rather than a strategist”.
McCombes asks: “Did we create a personality cult around Sheridan”? He replies with a qualified no. “Focusing on an individual keeps things simple for the media and makes it easier to connect with people and get the political message across... But we went too far”.
You’re damned right you went too far! The SSP paper Scottish Socialist Voice ran a centrespread on Sheridan’s wedding in 2000. Ballot papers gave the SSP’s name as “Scottish Socialist Party — convenor: Tommy Sheridan”.
A public image was promoted of a man who not only had done good work against the poll tax, but was clean-living, physically fit, teetotal, his only weakness sun-beds. And McCombes thinks it is just Sheridan’s fault that Sheridan came to believe in the image?
The SSP leaders drifted to a conception of socialism as 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.
An educated membership who had been kept informed over the years could have got the party out of the difficulties. But all attempts over the years to move in that direction failed.
All attempts to get Marxist educationals off the ground
All attempts to get a more collective, activist-based approach to industrial work
All attempts to open up the Scottish Socialist Voice to real debate and discussion.
Downfall falls short of the full truth. For example: did everyone really reluctantly go to Sheridan’s perjury trial, under legal compulsion? Didn’t Rosie Kane use her column in the Record to “demand” a perjury investigation after the defamation trial?
If George McNeilage acted completely alone in taping and selling the tape of Sheridan allegedly confessing to the News of the World, as the book asserts, why did SSP leaders at the SSP’s October 2006 conference work so hard to block a Workers’ Unity emergency motion which asked that the party distance itself from his actions in selling the tape to the News of the World?
The left has to think about its culture — the gang psychology that made Sheridan so central and, until the falling-out, so unquestionable. It has to create educated, informed, rounded activists, and a culture where no one is indispensable or elevated into a presidential role.