by Stan Crooke
Tommy Sheridan’s libel action against the News of the World was really two trials for the price of one.
One trial was the libel action itself, triggered by Sheridan’s decision to sue the News of the World for £200,000 over articles which the paper had published in 2004 concerning his private life. According to the articles, Sheridan had cheated on his wife, attended a swingers’ club, and engaged in group sex.
The other trial involved the future of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).
Sheridan won the first trial. By seven votes to four the jury decided that Sheridan had been libelled by the newspaper, and that the paper should pay in full the damages which he demanded.
No formal verdict has yet been delivered in the second trial. But the outcome of that is inseparable from how Sheridan chose to present his case in the libel action.
In order to win his lawsuit, Sheridan — who decided half-way through the trial to sack his legal team and to conduct his own case — had to overcome two obstacles.
One was the evidence of a number of women who claimed to have had sex with him, or to have witnessed him engaged in various sexual activities, or to have done both simultaneously. Sheridan denied the claims. A majority of the jurors believed him.
The other obstacle was the evidence of a number of SSP Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and members of the SSP Executive Committee.
They said that at a meeting of the SSP Executive Committee in November 2004 Sheridan had admitted having twice attended swingers’ clubs, and that he had said that he would simply deny this in court, as the News of the World could not prove the allegation.
Minutes of the November meeting confirmed their version of events and those minutes have been published on the SSP website (www.scottishsocialistparty.org). The minutes had not been circulated after the meeting but had been kept under lock and key. They ended up in court only after the News of the World had secured a court order for their release, and SSP National Policy Co-ordinator Alan McCombes had spent a spell in jail for refusing to hand them over.
Sheridan denied that he had said what eleven other members of the SSP (including four of the party’s six MSPs) stated they heard him say at that meeting. He denied that the minutes of the meeting were genuine. He claimed that he was the victim of a monstrous plot.
On the first day of the trial SSP National Treasurer Allison Kane confirmed the accuracy of the disputed minutes, and said that Sheridan had admitted attending a swingers’ club. Three days later McCombes corroborated Kane’s version of events. Sheridan’s QC responded by accusing McCombes of being part of a plot to “politically assassinate” Sheridan so that he himself could take over the leadership of the SSP.
In the third week of the trial, when former SSP member Katrine Trolle testified to her affair with Sheridan, Sheridan put it to her that “you are here is because Allison Kane has encouraged you to be here to give this evidence because Allison Kane and others are involved in trying to politically undermine me and my position within the SSP.”
In questioning SSP National Secretary Alan Green, Sheridan described the minutes as being “as dodgy as a ten-bob note” and claimed that Green and other members of the Executive Committee had met before the meeting in order to prepare a strategy to undermine him politically.
When Sheridan himself went into the witness box, he said: “If you are suggesting these witnesses (the SSP MSPs and EC members) are not able, not willing or not capable of conspiring to pervert the course of justice, then you simply were not listening to their evidence. People came into this witness box and not just lied, but politically scabbed.”
Witnesses called by Sheridan backed his allegations of a plot to oust him.
Rosemary Byrne, the only MSP to testify in favour of Sheridan said that there had been “people out to do Tommy down”, that the Executive Committee meeting of November 2004 had been almost “a kangaroo court”, and that some members had decided that Sheridan was guilty before he was given a chance to speak. She denied the accuracy of the minutesand that Sheridan had said that he had attended swingers’ clubs. So too did two other members of the Executive Committee, Graham McIver and Pat Smith.
SWP member Mike Gonzales claimed that there had been a “fairly relentless campaign to discredit” Sheridan.
As the trial drew to a close Sheridan’s wife took the witness box and drew together the threads of the plotting against her husband:
“I know Katrine Trolle very well. She is pally with Allison Kane and the rest of them, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie [SSP MSPs]. They have had it in for you for years. You were warned about it, but you chose to ignore it. I warned you, your mother warned you, your sisters warned you, people in the party warned you, people in the media warned you, for that matter.”
A majority of the jurors disbelieved, or at least disregarded, the evidence given by the various SSP MSPs and Executive Committee members who had testified — unwillingly, and under protest — that Sheridan had admitted going to swingers’ clubs, and who had confirmed the minutes of the November Executive Committee meeting as accurate.
As a result, Sheridan won his libel action. But the outcome of the other trial – the one about the future of the SSP — did not depend on who or what the jurors believed. It had depended on the way Sheridan had dealt with the evidence from within the SSP.
And Sheridan’s argument was that he had been the victim of a plot by other leading figures in the SSP — a plot apparently so cunningly put together that, in order to give an aura of authenticity to the “dodgy minutes”, the SSP ran up legal bills of £40,000 for refusing to hand them over, while one of its national officers ended up in jail for the same offence.
Sheridan’s opponents, on the other hand, have accused him of lying his way through the trial. They defend what they said in court as the truth, and defend the minutes of the November 2004 Executive Committee meeting as an accurate record. A meeting of the SSP Executive Committee last Sunday voted to support them.
No political organisation can function with that level of internal conflict. The question now is: how many members of the SSP will back Sheridan in his plan to take control of the SSP at the special conference scheduled for October.
Enough, unfortunately, to make a split in the SSP a virtual inevitability: those who don’t care whether Sheridan was telling the truth or not, but back him because he took on the hated News of the World and won; those, probably a rather lesser number, who actually believe Sheridan’s conspiracy theory; and those who back Sheridan for factional reasons.
The SWP in Scotland is already calling on SSP members who testified against Sheridan to do “the honourable thing” and resign from the SSP. They want an SSP-Respect merger. As one Respect member quoted in the Sunday Herald put it: “Tommy may have won, but the SSP has lost. And that’s why Respect are moving in.”
But an SSP-Respect bloc might not prove as straightforward as it appears at first sight. Galloway and the SWP are hostile to the demand for independence for Scotland, whereas the latter demand is the cornerstone of Sheridan’s politics. On the other hand, they can doubtless come up with some working relationship which sidesteps political differences.
In the run-up to the libel trial a common theme from Sheridan’s opponents within the SSP was that once the trial had taken place, then everything would become clear. At the time, it was a rational prediction to make. But it is certainly not how things have worked out.