A Scottish tragedy

Liz Davies finds Alan McCombes’ account of Tommy Sheridan’s downfall painful but necessary
August 2011

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


 

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Lena 28 August 2011, 14.38

Nice little earner for some SSP members for their cosy relationship with Murdoch and the NOW.


James 28 August 2011, 15.27

Rather a one sided review I would suggest. Two other views here, one from Ian Bell:

http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=431:whats-left-ian-bell&catid=52:volume-7-issue-3-2011&Itemid=147

And one from me

http://living.scotsman.com/books/Book-reviews-Downfall-The-Tommy.6784167.jp


Neil Williams 28 August 2011, 16.36

Liz Davis really does give a very very bias and poor account of events. James Dolmen’s article is well worth reading for an alternative view on these events. The Sheridan Trial notes by James Doleman http://sheridantrial.blogspot.com/ give a very accurate day by day account of the recent Tommy Sheridan trial.
Of equal concern and not touched on in Alan McCombes book or the Liz Davies review is the role of the UK police in infiltrating left wing groups in the UK with spies and in many cases acting as agent provocateurs (see: http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2011/07/agents-provocateurs/ and http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/20/police-spy-on-climate-activists-unlawful). We can be sure that this occurred inside the Scottish Socialist Party the end result being what we see today – a fragmented and much weakened Left in Scotland!


Linda 28 August 2011, 19.55

James Doleman’s review is the most biased I have read so far, interesting that he does not mention in it, or indeed on his blog during the trial, that he is a member of the SWP so hardly credible as an unbiased reporter!


Rosie Kane 28 August 2011, 20.52

SWP and CWI know the facts but their leadership believe that Sheridan is so very special we should have let his behaviour go unchecked. Tommy put himself before the movement. His crimes against socialism are his worst crimes…. those who fall st his feet will eventually see what we were dealing with.


not surprised anymore 29 August 2011, 08.06

I didn’t think changing the locks on the Stanley Street HQ was very democratic- office bearers knew the SSP membership did not agree with their actions but still wanted to be in control. This is the type of organisation young women were excluded from by so-called feminists. If you say democracy and feminist enough in articles about the SSP, so one might believe you. Ex-members will not.


not quite speechless 29 August 2011, 12.18

Jealousy Rosie? – cos you sure as hell weren’t special. Would you care to comment about the gossip going round about you while you were an MSP – about missing an important debate in the Parliament because you were too busy shagging a journalist? Or what about Leckie and Curran outdoing all the other pigs at the trough when it came to claiming expenses? And just read some original writing by McCombes before accepting his claim to being a great writer – the man doesn’t know spelling or grammar from his arse. One thing’s for sure the proof reader on this pitiful fallacy sure earned his wages. As not surprised anymore says you lot wouldn’t know democracy if it attached itself to your rectum!


frances curran 29 August 2011, 16.56

Liz is so right. Tommy’s double life was his downfall. Tommy’s legal action against the NoW to hide that double life was his downfall. His decision to commit perjury against all of the advice was his downfall. There is only one person responsible for that downfall and it is Tommy himself.

No-one else is responsible. It is about time his supporters held him accountable – that is exactly what we did. And I would do the same again.

It doesn’t matter how many cheap insults, innuendo and lies you throw, the facts are the facts. On the issue of political perspectives every one at the very beginning including the SWP and CWI were in possession of the same facts – including the fact that a number of us had explicitly told Tommy not to drag us into court because we would not lie. We discussed scenarios over and over at the EC’s with SWP/CWI members in attendance. Whose political perspective was borne out? Tommy is exactly where we warned him he would end up seven years ago if he took his road.

As to the cheap shot about expenses – I took a worker’s wage as did Rosie and Carolyn and the expenses are the highest because we declared every penny of the individual MSP’s £54,000 staff allowance which other MSP’s refused to do. Cheap stupid point.


No tragedy 29 August 2011, 17.09

I’m sure the money the author will make from the book will help him recover from the ‘pain’ of having to write it. The best thing about the fall out of the ‘socialists’ (socialists till they get a good wage and gravy train expenses) is that the SSP and Shagger’s bunch of sycophants are finished for good. No more troughing it on the expenses, no more scruffy toerags with writing on their hands polluting the kiddon parliament. When you get your arses kicked electorially by the fruitcases of the BNP you should just crawl back under your rock and die.


Rosie Kane 29 August 2011, 18.24

Oh dear….. some pretty vile comments here. Vile and false.


frances curran 29 August 2011, 20.05

Yeah Rosie, when bile and anger and hostility replace rational debate there is no point in continuing any dialogue.

Although I actually feel sorry for the people who post in that tone because I don’t think that we are the real targets just the most recent recipients of angry unhappy people.

Be someone else tomorrow.

Alan DID NOT make loads of the money from this book he received the usual writers advance. And unless it sells 10,000 copies he will not receive another penny.

Alan Rosie and myself all live in council/housing association housing and we all experienced unemployment after the 2007 election and none of us has a secure well paid job.

Tommy in contrast took £30,000 from the Daily Record to trash us ( I have a copy of the contract)and an estimated £50,000 from big brother – kind of defeats the workers wage policy!

The charge of socialist sell out is aimed in the wrong direction.


snork 29 August 2011, 22.13

Out of interest Frances how is your libel case against the Daily Record going?


frances curran 29 August 2011, 22.39

The appeal was heard in March but there is no indication when the written judgment will be published.

Why do people post anonymously?

And for the record if the NoW had been trashing Tommy with a load of made up lies I would have supported him in his defamation action.


frances curran 29 August 2011, 22.58

I should clarify that this would have been my decision at the time.

Having gone through the experience as documented in Alan’s, book where he outlines what we were dealing with, I would never now support in any way shape or form Tommy or his refusal to take responsibility for for what is abusive behaviour – of everyone.

Alan McCombes has done us all a huge service by documenting the truth.


not quite speechless 30 August 2011, 09.47

Pity McCombes couldn’t ‘document the truth’ when the NC of the SSP passed a motion calling for whoever gave an affidavit to the Sunday Herald to be disciplined. Pity he lied about it for years afterwards – especially to rank and file members of his own party. Pity he didn’t correct the assertion made by Colin Fox, at that same NC, that it was Duncan Rowan who was to blame for this action. Pity those who were at that NC and knew the truth sat in silence while this lie was spread. But hey, you are all so fond of ‘the truth’ that I’m sure you will rectify all this. Won’t you ……?


Rosie Kane 30 August 2011, 18.09

We are all entitled to our opinions ‘not quite speechless’ and I am happy to discuss any and all issues re Sheridan, SSP etc but I have to say the accusation you make here re my personal life is utterly false and whoever told you this has lied to you. I ask that you retract this remark or substantiate it… as I said I am happy to meet to put the record straight and I would like to know who fed you that horrible lie. I do not lead a double life and I would always put the movement before self interest.


Dougie Bryce (aka no tragedy) 30 August 2011, 21.36

He wont make anything until the first 10,000 copies are sold? Which will be why he told the Sunday Mail he makes 8% of the retail price of every copy sold. Though in the numbers a book about a disgraced chancer and his harem will sell, I agree McCombess won’t become a rich man.
As for the workers wage policy – surely that is a contradiction as MP’s/MSP’s had over generous holidays, expenses to die for (as you ladies know), a very flexible working day and very little to do. That Shagger woke up and smelt the coffee and realised he had to make money was one of the few things to his credit.
Two things though – after Shareabed went to the ‘big hoose’, the SSP stated they wanted to move on. So why are they still obsessed with him? And secondly, if you were so disgusted with King Louie after he won his first defamation case against the NOTW, what do you think of Comrade Fox’s statement – “Tommy Sheridan’s victory in his action against the News of the World is an extraordinary achievement against heavy odds.
“Every socialist will rejoice in the jury’s rejection of the News of the World’s journalism which this verdict represents” – as reported by the BBC.


brettvharper 1 September 2011, 02.52

why indeed did colin fox state that tommys victory in 2006 should be celebrated by socialists?
why did the ssp executive ignore the wishes of grass route members?
why is trolle not considered as pathetic and abusive towards woman yet tommy is as he allegedlly went to cupids? sisterhood?
why did mccombes lie to his party about feeding stories too the papers?
why does mccombes not admit the real reason he fell out with tommy was because tommy would not lie for him about his affair with leckie?
why did the ssp create fake minutes. oops they were lost right? only to be found again…
if the ssp hate murdoch and his rags why give them the tape?
why was the extra 50k not mentioned in court?
why did the ssp promote tommy for so long if he was as useless as the ssp would have us believe.l?
why did duncan rowan tell me the whole thing was a screw job? why did he tell the notw what the ssp were doing too tommy was just what socialists did? build em, break em and build someone else…
why is the ssp so quiet about fiona mquire who they know tommy had never met??
why do the ssp insist i lied in court yet they know i did not. am i really a diciple of tommys. wow, so very not orriginal.
why wont francis admit they wanted tommy out long before 2004. you basically told me so in aberdeen.
will yous admit colin fox felt bullied by the ssp to do tommy in??
lastly should the ssp change their name to the scottish scabs platform?


Legally Bald 1 September 2011, 09.31

Liz Davies clearly has not read McCombes’ affidavit to the Herald and has just accepted his version of events. That statement includes a threat to reveal information about Tommy Sheridan if he does not drop the case against the NoW. It also gives a version of the EC meeting that differs in places from the final alleged version in the minutes. He would go on to portray himself as a hero who defended the party’s right to privacy, a privacy he had breached almost immediately. No matter how Sheridan comes out of this, McCombes looks far worse.

She also does not explain why so many SSP members felt compelled to go beyond just commenting on the EC meeting and added other new rumours about Sheridan. McCombes’ book goes much further, suggesting things about Sheridan’s life and personality (without any proof being offered)and even repeating accusations about drugs that he acknowledges he doesnt believe, yet still prints the accusations.

It is a hatchet job, coupled with an attempt to re-write McCombes’ own despicable role in this.

Liz also seems to think that only the people who remained in the SSP were vilified and called names. The split was not along feminsit lines, it was about the differing actions in the Sheridan case.

McCombes and his supporters tried to force Sheridan to drop the case, when that didnt happen they ended up in court, had gone too far to back out.

It was shameful, but this book is a new low for the Scottish left.

Thankfully, some members of both sides of that split are working together against the cuts, while McCombes and the old brigade continue to keep this going, younger SSP members have moved on.

Overall, this a poor effort from Liz, she should have done some research before writing on a subject she clearly knows only one side of.


cwi 7 September 2011, 18.59

For another view of the book, you can read online this pamphlet responding to it – “The Rise and Fall of the Scottish Socialist Party: A Reply to Downfall, the Tommy Sheridan Story”.

It’s at http://issuu.com/sdaly/docs/riseandfallssp?mode=a_p


Joe 9 September 2011, 11.08

I remember a trade union leader embroiled in a sex scandal apologising to the executive committee and every delegate, many of whom had discreetly discussed the issue beforehand, responded by saying someone’s private life is exactly that, private, and of absolutely no concern to anyone in the union or the union itself. The minutes simply stated that a unanimous vote of confidence had taken place. To the best of my knowledge no delegate ever discussed the matter in public and certainly not with the press. Why couldn’t the SSP have done the same?


Frank 11 September 2011, 09.12

@joe
I’m think the reason the ssp couldn’t do the same was because Sheridan said it was his intention to initiate a court trial, deny the sex story, commit perjury, and gain money from doing so.

If the union leader had said that to everyone ah think peoples reactions would have been quite different.


Joe 11 September 2011, 11.48

Perhaps so Frank, although the union leader was taking advice from his closest advisers and they thought the best strategy was a pre-prepared apology which he simply read out to the executive only. I think it’s safe to say his advisers had also advised the executive members, or at least the influential ones, on how best to react, i.e. with a unanimous “your private life is private, say no more about it, we support you, we’ll be saying no more about it, and we’ll be asking others to say no more about it – unhelpful gossip and speculation must not be allowed to distract from union business.”

This is hypothetical but had the union leader told his advisers he intended to go to court over the matter, I’m fairly sure his advisers would’ve told him not to make even a pre-prepared apology to the executive. The executive would’ve simply been advised that the matter was under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere.

In almost any scenario the union strategy would’ve been to say as little as possible to as few as possible whilst still saying something to end unhelpful gossip and speculation.

There are also ways to have private conversations without risking a contempt of court charge for refusing to repeat the conversation in court. Talking in hypothetical abstract terms, not producing detailed minutes, and having a lawyer present are fairly standard.


Frank 11 September 2011, 15.25

Well as Sheridan says, his biggest mistake was telling people in the party what he had done. Kinda true. Had he lied to them as well he could have pursued his court case without putting about 20 people at risk of perjury to protect his reputation. It was a bit much of an ask after that – “Please risk up to ten years imprisonment, so that I can hide the truth about my sex life”.

Obviously though there’s a bigger mistake that was made. When he went to the sex club he invited a News of the World journalist to go with him. A sex columnist apparently. That’s the bit that makes me think he was a bit ‘off his head’. Problems with ego, and thinking he was untouchable or something. I think a few people knew he was off the rails long before this, and decided to get evidence to protect themselves and the party should he go interstellar ballistic and turn against everyone. His passion and determination for committing to the lie is quite breathtaking. Impressive even.

I joined about a year and a half before the first trial and never heard a peep about what was going on until just before the trial kicked off. There was an attempt to get him to drop it. Even an offer to pay any legal fees if he did.


Joe 12 September 2011, 13.20

Frank, the reaction of the anti-Sheridan faction and their concern for the party (more likely concern for themselves and their own political careers) was based on a fallacy, the fallacy being that the SSP would be damaged by a sex scandal. It’s actually insulting to SSP voters to think they are so prudish as to desert their socialist principles and the SSP over a sex scandal. If the SSP had taken a firm stand from the outset over privacy and refused to enter into a debate about any one’s personal life the vast majority of left-leaning voters would have applauded. Opposing the gutter press, especially the News of the World, would’ve attracted more voters than the sex scandal lost.

Can you imagine the headlines, SSP SAY PRIVATE LIVES ARE PRIVATE or SSP OPPOSE GUTTER PRESS OVER PRIVACY or SLURS WON’T STOP THE SSP or NO GOSSIP PLEASE, WE’RE SOCIALISTS. All that kind of stuff appeals to the SSP’s core audience. How SSP strategist Alan McCombes thought getting into the gutter with the gutter press to be a good strategy I’ll never know. The arguments he makes in support of such a move don’t add up – see Philip Stott’s pamphlet linked above.

As I said before, keeping private conversations private is a simple matter and something any political strategist should understand. Even in everyday life there are a multitude of ways to avoid being dragged into gossip. If Sheridan strapped his audience down they still retain the option not to listen. No one can be forced to become a gossip. People choose to become a gossip.


Frank 12 September 2011, 20.15

Joe wrote:
“If the SSP had taken a firm stand from the outset over privacy and refused to enter into a debate about any one’s personal life the vast majority of left-leaning voters would have applauded.”

Yeah I know!?! It was Sheridan that wanted to enter into a debate about it. In a civil action in the Edinburgh Court of Sessions. Where the press would, and did, have a feeding frenzy.

Joe wrote:
“SSP SAY PRIVATE LIVES ARE PRIVATE or SSP OPPOSE GUTTER PRESS OVER PRIVACY or SLURS WON’T STOP THE SSP or NO GOSSIP PLEASE, WE’RE SOCIALISTS.”

If Sheridan had been willing to go along with any of those responses I think people in the party would have been delighted. In fact people said things like this were suggested to him. But he wasn’t willing to do that. His strategy was to initiate a civil trial and commit perjury. He was a sitting MSP at the time, and Colin Fox was on one of the Justice Committees.

Which part of Stott’s pamphlet? It’s 17 pages long. Bit much for a book review imo. I haven’t read the book yet myself by the way. Have you?

Joe Wrote:
“If Sheridan strapped his audience down they still retain the option not to listen. No one can be forced to become a gossip. People choose to become a gossip.”

Ehhhhmmm….. Starting to worry here if you’re a little focused on some social science theorem you’re working on, or if you’re trolling.


Joe 13 September 2011, 00.32

I’m not saying Tommy Sheridan’s tactical approach to the sex scandal was ideal, Frank, but then he’s a politician not a strategist. Also, Sheridan was at the centre of the sex scandal. When facing allegations about his private life, the union leader I was talking about didn’t react in an entirely rational manner either, but his advisers did.

As I understand it SSP strategist Alan McCombes was quick to declare Sheridan finished – an odd reaction to what should have been an opportunity to take a stand against the gutter press. The really bad strategy from McCombes though was not appreciating the significance of Sheridan stating his intention to go to court for defamation. As soon as Sheridan mentioned court McCombes should have informed comrades that the matter was under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere. McCombes knew Sheridan’s intentions before the pre-meet for the special executive meeting in November 2004, therefore no pre-meet and no special executive meeting should have been arranged, or if they were comrades should have been told that the matter was under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere.

Even if McCombes (and Sheridan) didn’t appreciate the need to separate the party from the gossip and the party from Sheridan’s private affairs, there were various other clever individuals around at that time who should’ve known better. Someone should’ve realised that the SSP as a party and the sex life of the convener should never have been allowed to mix. Producing a set of minutes about the convener’s sex life was amateurish in the extreme, yet six of the people present were supposed to be helping run the country.



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