In May 2003, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) won six Scottish Parliamentary seats with 245,735 votes (4.7%). This was an extraordinary achievement. The party was democratic, vibrant, led by committed socialists and feminists and its most famous representative, Tommy Sheridan, had made an impact as the sole SSP MSP before 2003.
In November 2004, Sheridan admitted to a stunned meeting of the SSP executive that he was the ‘married MSP’ whom the News of the World (NoW) had accused of frequenting swingers’ clubs. Worse, he was going to bring a libel claim, denying it and going to court telling a lie. Twenty-one people sat shocked, some crying. They agreed unanimously that Sheridan should be asked to reconsider. Sheridan’s response was to resign as leader, and to begin a campaign of vilification against his former friends and comrades.
Those who knew the truth desperately tried to protect Sheridan’s confidentiality. The minutes of the meeting – in a format that had been the SSP’s standard practice – were approved at the following meeting and then kept secret. McCombes himself was imprisoned for contempt after he refused to hand the copy over to the Court and the NoW's lawyers.
The NoW summonsed those who had attended the executive meeting to give evidence at the libel trial. They all appeared under compulsion, prefacing their evidence that they were there unwillingly. Having been forced to attend Court, they did the only thing possible and the right thing: 11 witnesses told the truth about Sheridan's admission at the meeting. Sheridan's response was to accuse his former friends/comrades of conspiring against him, forging minutes, and committing perjury. Sheridan has now been convicted of perjury.
Since the libel trial, the 11 SSP witnesses have faced vilification – from being called ‘scabs’ by Sheridan in the Daily Record, to the hatred of left, mainly male, commentators on the web. The women were branded ‘witches’ and humourless puritanical feminists. What else could they have done? Refusing to attend Court would have landed them in prison. If they had tried to lie on oath, inconsistencies would have been exposed under cross-examination and they would have been committing perjury. This was not the state dragging a socialist into court. Socialist Sheridan had initiated the libel case, and expected his former friends to back him in those lies.
It was Sheridan who was engaging in Puritan morality by pretending to be a stably-married man whilst leading a double life of affairs and patronising sex clubs. It was Sheridan who, when he realised that 21 people knew that the libel case would be a lie, conspired to create factions within the SSP. Organised revolutionary groups, the Militant/CWI and SWP, were delighted to help him abuse a SSP leadership which believed in democracy, feminism and independent thinking. McCombes’ account of their behaviour and disregard for moral principles rings true with any of us who have ever tried to work with those groups.
What about the argument that socialists should always support socialists against Murdoch (or the police or the state)? Or that Sheridan is such an electoral asset that the SSP should back him come what may? Taking a libel case on the basis of a lie back-fires: look at Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken. If the SSP had backed Sheridan, they too would now be in prison for perjury and the SSP would be even more devastated than it is today. And, fundamentally, it is wrong to lie.
The SSP had a duty to protect its party – not from Murdoch but from Sheridan. Some have criticised the minutes secretary for taking the minutes to the police. It was Sheridan who had raised the prospect of a criminal investigation as he accused his former comrades of giving perjured evidence. The police were investigating all the witnesses. Of course the minutes secretary had the right to protect herself and her comrades and to clear their names.
McCombes has been criticised for giving a rival newspaper a sworn affidavit at the time of the executive meeting. The affidavit backed up an off-the-record conversation in which McCombes had said that Sheridan's resignation was not for his stated reasons, but said nothing more.
Given what we know about NoW, it’s possible that Sheridan’s phone was hacked. It's also possible that the News of the World witnesses, including Andy Coulson, who gave evidence about News of the World procedures at Sheridan’s perjury trial were not telling the truth. We wait and see. However, Sheridan was not brought down by phone-hacking. He was brought down by his own double life, and his decision to lie under oath in order to protect that double life.
The last six years have been years of hell for the SSP members who were forced to give evidence and those who supported them. They haven’t been pleasant for Sheridan and his supporters either, but all that stems from the reckless and egocentric decision to bring a libel case on the basis of a lie – and then to pull no punches when friends and comrades disagreed. We now have at least three socialist parties in Scotland. Their combined vote in May 2011 was 32,091. Obviously voters turn away from a party whose former leader has made himself a laughing stock and who accused his former comrades of lying. It’s the lies, not the sex, that voters mind.
McCombes was one of Sheridan’s closest comrades from the mid-1980s until 2004. They built the SSP together. McCombes had the strategic insight, Sheridan the oratory and charisma. McCombes’ account is painful to read and must have been almost unbearable, but also necessary, to write. The book – like those witnesses at the libel trial – tells the truth.
Downfall: the Tommy Sheridan story by Alan McCombes is published by Birlinn.
Liz Davies is chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She writes here in a personal capacity