‘Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography’ by Gregor Gall (Welsh Academic Press)
‘Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story’ by Alan McCombes (Birlinn)
Joanne Telfer reviews two recent books that cover the events around the resignation of Tommy Sheridan as convener of the Scottish Socialist Party and his subsequent imprisonment.
The Tommy Sheridan story, as narrated by Alan McCombes and by Gregor Gall will tell the reader much of what they want to know about the political career of Tommy Sheridan and will offer some interesting theories about the man behind the persona. What other reviews have done, in my opinion, is skirt around the issues and offered a critique of style rather than deal with the substance.
Let me explain my position, as the views of the writer often influence the writer’s bias. I sided with Solidarity in the split but never wholeheartedly and I heard the story of the separation from the Solidarity perspective. Like most people who took sides, I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear or see these dramas unfold first-hand. I will say emphatically that reading Downfall by Alan McCombes made many things much clearer and made me decide, after five and a half years, to rejoin the SSP.
A general comparison
Alan McCombes worked very closely with Tommy Sheridan for twenty years, which included the development of the SSP project but also prior to that in the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) and Scottish Militant Labour (SML). Gregor Gall on the other hand did not play a central role in events. His work is an academic study based upon many hours of taped interviews withSheridan and a host of people who worked alongside him and/or were involved in the two court cases.
Both approaches have their merits because with McCombes’ account the reader is placed inside the vital meetings and given a first hand narrative. On the other hand his account is more partial and clouded with more emotion. Gall placesSheridan within the context of the political movements of the times and there is a sharper contrast between Sheridan ‘on his way up’ compared to Sheridan ‘on his way down’. It would be almost impossible for McCombes, working so closely withSheridan to separate out his own influence on the making ofSheridan the hero, from the qualities of Sheridan himself. But in another way there is no substitute for being there in person as events unfold.
In Gregor Gall’s book you are taken through aspects ofSheridan’s early life and Gall pays particular attention toSheridan’s mother who believed he was very special. ThatSheridan was special is undoubtedly true but Gall tells us thatAlice considered his him almost Messianic. What Sheridan had was the ability to give rousing speeches and enthuse the people he was addressing.
Gall compares him with other orators in Scottish history and further a field and findsSheridan to be still quite exceptional. The first four chapters of Gall’s book are devoted to his formative years. Gall describes his involvement in fighting the poll tax and how he became aGlasgow councillor. It’s half way through the book and chapter six before Gall turns his attention to the News of the World and what would become a seven-year battle and a huge preoccupation beyond all other things.
McCombes’ chapters are shorter and though he covers similar ground he does so in less depth. We read in chapter five about what he learned from Keith Baldasara aboutSheridan’s secret life that was coming to light in 2003. He describes this as “more akin to a 1970’s porn star than the leader of a socialist party challenging inequality and exploitation”. He cites “live porn shows – with the boy wonder in the starring role, threesomes in a hotel and repeated visits to a seedyManchester sex club”.
Gregor Gall would have written his biography whatever the course of history because Sheridan was a man that would enter Scottish consciousness and be widely remembered. Alan McCombes on the other hand wrote his book, in my opinion to try to put the record straight. When I asked a Sheridan supporter recently about McCombes’ book he said he not read it but at the same time he expressed the opinion that to do so would be some kind of heresy. He thought McCombes had done it for the money but the actual sum received in royalties was actually a paltry amount for all the work that goes into writing such a book.
The shit hits the fan
What becomes inevitably the focus of attention in both biographies is the period from 2004-2011. This is a tale of two court cases, one of which Sheridan won and the other which he lost. Alan McCombes describes the EC meeting of 9 Nov 2004, in chapter 8 as “Showdown” and Gall describes it under a subheading in his chapter 6, simply as “The 9/11 meeting”. Crucially at this meeting Tommy Sheridan admitted to visiting Cupid’s swingers club on two occasions and being the married MSP (previously unnamed) mentioned in newspaper reports. He also stated that he would fight this on the basis that there would be no proof that the NOW could use to back up its story.
What Alan McCombes does particularly well is to document the series of events surrounding Sheridan’s resignation as SSP convenor and the series of events immediately preceding the defamation hearing in 2006. He does this in such a way that it is clear beyond doubt; the leadership of the SSP were firmly focussed on protecting Sheridan and the SSP not destroying him or the party.
The counter-narrative springs from the premise that Sheridan was forced to step down and this is absolutely true but what could not be made public at the time (or for that matter for years later) is that Sheridan could have returned in time to the position of party convenor had he taken the advice from several quarters to drop the court proceedings and ride out the media storm without becoming duplicitous.
As Gall quotes McCombes from the infamous EC meeting of 9/11/04: “People will forgive sexual misconduct but not the leader of a political party lying about it” – words which proved to be prophetic. Whatever political activists now believe, the image in the minds of the electorate of bothSheridan personally and the party that he lead, have suffered a crushing blow. Ironically truth has an historical potential to emerge from obscurity in time. Deception is only ever a temporary refuge for those that use this expedient.
Gall describes in Chapter 2 how Sheridan developed his media skills by approaching the right people in the right newspapers and giving the most appropriate sound bites, so by 2004 Sheridan had numerous contacts and willing ears to which to turn. Unfortunately in juxtaposition to the allegations, to which additional extra-marital affair had now been added,Sheridan had cultivated an image of clean living and monogamy. He also had a massive reputation for honesty and integrity making the situation even more explosive.
He made his own statement to the media, which astonished many party members by its clichéd nature, that he’d resigned to spend more time with his family.
McCombes recounts that he and Sheridan had spent hours preparing a carefully worded statement, which was sufficiently vague but would centre on the bare facts: that he was pursuing the defamation action on a personal basis and therefore not involving the party by stepping down as convenor.
What followed was a period of intense media speculation and further revelations about Sheridan’s sex life. According to McCombes; false information started circulating, concerning plots against Sheridan that implicated leading women in the party. He tells us that up until November 2004, Sheridan’s only political opponents were the CWI and SWP platforms that he allied with in forming Solidarity.
The quiet before the trial
Replacing Tommy Sheridan as SSP convenor meant that someone had to replace him and therefore an election in February 2005 between Colin Fox and Alan McCombes. Fox the outsider hadSheridan’s support and thus the perception of a division was created in the party where no real division existed. Gregor Gall describesSheridan’s tactics in this period in chapter 6 and McCombes, in chapter 12, describes it as “a game of poker”. During this period according to both authors,Sheridan was using his considerable popularity to forge his alliances with the CWI and SWP platforms, on the basis that he was taking on the despicable Murdoch Empire. This narrative would later become ubiquitous amongst his supporters.
Had the allegations about affairs and swingers clubs been false or had the newspaper been suing him, this might have made sense but with Sheridan’s formidable oratory skills, the logicality of the story was seemingly ignored by those who’s emotions had been stirred against a natural enemy. Fox was presented as Sheridan’s preference and won the election but this created the impression by simple logic that McCombes and company must be Sheridan’s political opponents.
The SSP policy of 50/50 representation (which Sheridan had supported) provided an additional smoke screen. This had never been popular amongst the more traditional Marxists. It did however become the vehicle of convenience to be woven into the fiction that a section of the party and leading women in particular, were pursuing a bourgeois feminist agenda against Sheridan.
Thus as Gregor Gall states in chapter 6, Sheridan “outmanoeuvred his opponents”. The theme was set of a story that included feminist conspirators and the evil Murdoch Empire and in the period after the defamation hearing would become an unholy alliance of co-conspirators in the minds of Sheridan’s supporters. Nevertheless this is a narrative that is mythological to its core. Because the authors can put all the events in their correct sequence, the mythological constructions are exposed.
The storm before the trial
Very few people knew that Alan McCombes had made a statement to the Herald back in 2004 about the infamous EC meeting, together with a sworn affidavit but shortly before the defamation hearing it became known that someone had. It was assumed that the statement included a copy of the minutes of that EC meeting but that was not the case.
Both McCombes and Gall explain in their books that this was a ploy in 2004 to placate the Herald and keep the lid on confidential matters and not an act of betrayal, as was assumed by Sheridan’s supporters. McCombes recounts how Colin Fox, visiting him in Saughton prison, told him about the affidavit but fully aware that he was the unnamed party official McCombes says in his book, “I decided this was not the time to burden Colin with that knowledge.
I think this is a point that McCombes fails to explain properly but a fuller explanation may be superfluous given that the Herald had been sitting on this for 18 months and it was a spiced up old story that contained no new information. The important point to remember is that McCombes was in Saughton prison possibly facing a two year stretch and this cannot have been some clever plot against Sheridan because McCombes was in there for refusing to hand over minutes which would potentially destroy Sheridan’s case.
Tommy Sheridan’s open letter is a matter of public record. In this letter he denounces amongst other things a “gender obsessed discussion group” as responsible for a plot against him (which would clearly be a reference to the women’s network). Alan McCombes alleges in chapter 14 that the open letter was worded, not by Sheridan, but by Steve Arnott the Highland regional organiser. The grounds for this are that Sheridan had not opposed the 50/50 debate in the SSP but Arnott had continued to oppose it long after the debate. Of course this is pure speculation on the part of McCombes but certainly plausible.
What matters is that this change of tack by Sheridan would suit his strategy for winning the defamation case: a plot against him by women who wanted to remove him as convenor to the point that they would falsify minutes and frame him for visits to a swingers’ club and possibly other allegations made by the Murdoch press. A call to arms against a class enemy, aided and abetted by gender obsessed political rivals. This was surely the perfect cover story.
The die was cast with the appearance of an alternative set of minutes and an appeal by Sheridan to release the official minutes and release Alan McCombes. The only feasible explanation for this precipitate change of strategy is written in the court records. Sheridan would argue that the official minutes were a forgery. He had already argued in his open letter that no such minutes existed but he must have realised that witnesses from the 9/11 EC meeting would have been cross-examined by NOW’s council if McCombes had remained in prison and the conspiracy defence would be stronger with a set of official minutes before the court.
The denial of the existence of minutes is indefensibly absurd: especially since an autonomous group the RCN platform had demanded they be circulated to the entire membership of the party in 2004; that minutes were always taken; that forged minutes were thrown into the mix at the eleventh hour and that subsequent EC and NC meetings of the party had signed for reading them.
Sheridan’s victory and the term ‘scab’
There’s an adage in human psychology that suggests that people faced with a difficult choice, will often back the perceived winners in a dispute.Sheridan had a field day with the media in the aftermath of the first court case. Alan McCombes in chapter 17 calls this “tabloids in paradise”. McCombes tells us how Bill Leckie reported in Murdoch’s Scottish Sun: “If he’s not a millionaire with his own chat show by the end of the year, I’ll eat a judge’s wig”. Splashed across the Daily Record the headline was: “I’ll destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me”.
Alan McCombes tells us that George McNeilage who had worked with Sheridan for 20 Years (and known him for 30) phoned Bob Bird of the News of the World “volcanic with rage” after reading the Daily Record article. The scab denunciation and the future perjury investigation suggested by the judge, created a tipping point for some of those who were at the end of their tether. Thus hand written notes of the 9/11 meeting were handed in at a police station and a taped confession videoed in 2004 was sold to the News of the World. These were clearly precipitous actions because if people were out to ‘get Sheridan’ they would have acted before the trial, not afterwards.
I originally thought the scab denunciation was a huge mistake but realistically Sheridan’s working relationship with McCombes and others in the SSP leadership was finished. He had to carry on where he’d left off in the courtroom. But by this action he ensured that people would act against him in reality rather than fantasy, which had two effects: it strengthened the ficticious narrative of Sheridan the victim but set wheels in motion that would lead to his exposure and disgrace in 2010.
Other questions that are addressed mainly by Gall are the ‘whys and wherefore’s’ of the sorry saga. McCombes’ conclusions are centred on the idea that Sheridan was never the real deal and was always a flawed character. Gall does a bit of amateur psychology and in my view some of this is too amateur. It’s a task that will interest those who want to know how the mind of a heroic leader operates under pressure because as a movement feeling it’s way towards creating a better society; we need to understand these things.
Gregor Gall also puts considerable effort into explaining and theorising about the various political factions over an extended period of history and raises questions about the consequences of departing from the Leninist party model, such as the lack of cadre development and over-centralised leadership. He suggests in chapter 9: “it is apparent from one aspect of Tommy’s conduct in the post 2004 period in relation to the SSP and the left that he practiced rather more of the centralist than the democratic centralism that Militant operated under”. Perhaps an issue that needs much more study is if we choose to replace a form of party organisation that has been in use since 1904, we need to think carefully about what we replace it with.
Whether you think this review has been informative or whether you think it is complete and utter garbage, what I would strongly recommend is that you read the books and discuss the issues. The SSP project back at its inception and for a number of years was a hugely ambitious and for a while very successful one in terms of left unity. The aspiration towards creating a mass socialist party and taking hold of the means of production for the benefit of all, necessitates that the left rediscovers this path to unity in Scotland (and indeed elsewhere). This will only be possible on the basis of a clear understanding of recent history to which I think both these books make a valuable contribution.