Crisis In The SSP
This article on recent events in the SSP is from the Irish Socialist Network.
The Tommy Sheridan affair probably hasn’t run its course yet: there’s bound to be a few twists and turns left before we can close the book on the whole saga. But it’s possible to draw up a provisional balance sheet after the events of the last few months and see what lessons can be learned. First of all, it’s important to establish the facts of what happened. It’s beyond question that somebody was lying. The rival versions of the story put across by Tommy Sheridan on the one hand, and his opponents in the SSP on the other, can’t both be accurate. So before we can draw any conclusions, we have to decide who’s telling the truth.
If we judged that Tommy Sheridan was telling the truth, then there’d be no problem deciding who was in the right and who was in the wrong. To sum it up briefly, Sheridan has put across the following story in the courts, the media and his own political material:
- A) He was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. This conspiracy stretched from the boardrooms of News International to the committee rooms of the SSP. Sheridan was a clean-living family man, devoted to his wife, whose only vice was an addiction to Scrabble. The News of the World set out to destroy his reputation because they feared the impact he might have as a radical political leader. They bribed witnesses to tell lies about him, making him out to be a sex-mad philanderer.
- B) When Murdoch’s tabloid began publishing stories about him, a
cabalin the SSP seized the chance to oust Sheridan. This cabal included most of the leading figures in the party, and virtually the entire leadership of the ISM, Sheridan’s own group. They were motivated by jealousy and personal resentment.
- C) Not content with ousting Sheridan from the leadership of the SSP, his comrades then proceeded to fabricate a story about the meeting of the party’s Executive Council that forced him to step down. They doctored the minutes of that meeting to back up their fabricated story. They then proceeded to lie under oath when Sheridan’s libel case came to trial.
Now if this were all true, we’d have little more to discuss. Sheridan’s opponents in the SSP would be a disgraceful bunch of charlatans who should be despised and distrusted by everyone on the left. Sheridan himself would be entirely in the right, the victim of a terrible frame-up, and fully deserving of support.
The trouble is, the whole story stinks. It is riddled with contradictions and won’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. For example, the claim that the minutes were doctored only surfaced early in 2006. Before that, Sheridan had never challenged their accuracy. But probably the most telling proof that Sheridan has been telling big fat porkies is the attitude of his new allies in the SWP and the CWI.
They have attacked the rump SSP ferociously in their publications and in the various Internet discussion forums, but they have tended not to repeat Sheridan’s outlandish claims about a conspiracy. His SSP opponents have been attacked for
siding with Rupert Murdoch, but not damned as liars. When Sheridan’s defenders have engaged in argument, they have tended to fall back on a very different line. They say that it was wrong for the party’s EC to discuss Sheridan’s personal life. Or if they did discuss it, that no minutes should have been taken. Or if they were taken, that they should have been destroyed. Whatever may be said about these arguments, they are all based on the assumption that Tommy Sheridan is lying and his opponents are telling the truth.
So it seems logical to take a very different version of events as the basis for discussion. The reality was that Tommy Sheridan did not live up to his public image as a family man. He was repeatedly…[we feel unable to publish the rest of this paragraph given TS‘s propensity for using the bourgeois courts -Ed]
Rumours of this behaviour were widespread and many people in the SSP were aware of them. Members of its leadership had confronted him about it well before the News of the World printed its stories, concerned that it might be damaging for the party. When the stories began appearing in the tabloids, Sheridan’s comrades were painfully aware that it wasn’t too far off the truth.
Hearing that he intended to take a libel case against the paper, the party’s EC confronted Sheridan and questioned the wisdom of his strategy. He assured them that while the stories might well be true, nothing could be proved in court, and he would take Murdoch’s rag to the cleaners by lying to protect his reputation. Sheridan expected the party leadership to support him. The other members of the EC agreed unanimously that this was a foolish course of action that was bound to be damaging for Sheridan and for the SSP. They suggested a number of alternative strategies for dealing with the paper’s stories. If he had accepted their advice and followed one of these courses, the story would probably have blown over in a few months.
The SSP has never preached the kind of rigid, conservative morality associated with the Tories or New Labour. Sex scandals did a lot of damage to the Tory party in the 90s because of their self-righteous cant about
family values. Never having pointed the finger at people who don’t fit in with bible-bashing conservative morality, the SSP should have been able to weather its own sex scandal.
True, there was a bit of a contradiction between Sheridan’s use of his family as a tool for building his media image, and his actual behaviour. But ultimately, Sheridan hadn’t built his political reputation on his standing as a family man: he built it up through years of involvement in activism.
That reputation would have survived intact if he had come clean about his personal flaws, or simply refused to discuss the matter. The SSP would have avoided its recent crisis, and Sheridan might still be its convenor.
When Sheridan refused to accept the advice of the EC and made it clear that he was going ahead with his libel case, the EC was quite right to ask for his resignation as convenor of the party. Having refused to accept any kind of collective decision-making, Sheridan wasn’t fit to carry on as leader of the party.
Those who say that the matter should never have been discussed at the EC can’t expect to be taken seriously. When the leader of a small left-wing party takes a libel case against a newspaper, it is bound to affect the whole organisation (especially when the leader is as prominent a figure as Sheridan). The rest of the party has a right to be consulted before such a drastic step is taken. Sheridan expected the SSP to support him with his case: if you ask people for support, you have to listen to their opinions.
The claim that minutes should never have been taken of the meeting is equally wrong-headed. That meeting was by far the most significant one in the SSP’s short life. If no minutes had been taken, there would have been no objective record of the meeting that had ended with the party’s leader being forced to step down. This would have been a blatant denial of democracy.
In fact, the main mistake that was made was the decision to keep the minutes confidential. This was understandable: it would have caused a big row if the minutes had been made publicly available, and it was natural to hope that the whole thing could be kept under wraps. But if the minutes had been published there and then, there would have been no libel trial and an ugly mess could have been avoided. The SSP would be in much better shape today. Sheridan’s opponents in the rump SSP now seem agreed that this was their biggest error.
Sheridan, of course, went ahead with his case, and inevitably the now-notorious EC meeting came under scrutiny. Even if there had been no minutes taken of the meeting, or if the minutes had been destroyed, the EC meeting would still have been discussed in court. Everyone knew that there had been a meeting of the EC that led to Sheridan’s resignation, and everyone knew that the discussion had been related to the newspaper stories and his plan to take a libel action.
At any rate, the court ordered the minutes to be handed over. The initial decision of the SSP leadership to defy this order was abandoned after leading member Alan McCombes had spent time in jail and punitive fines were beginning to stack up. As the strategy of defiance collapsed, Sheridan launched a bid to take back control of the party, issuing an open letter that contained bitter attacks on the main figures in the party. Charges of
McCarthyism were levelled, and there was a clear sexist undertone to sections of the open letter. At this point, the SWP and the CWI both swung fully behind Sheridan.
As the court case opened, all those who had been present at the EC meeting were called as witnesses. They faced a simple choice. They could tell the truth about what Sheridan has said in their presence. This would assist the News of the World in its efforts to discredit Sheridan, whether they liked it or not.
Or they could lie to back up his case. This would mean contradicting the minutes, which were in the possession of the court. It would invite charges of perjury if their lies were disbelieved, or if different witnesses contradicted each other under cross-examination. It would also powerfully reinforce the claim by Sheridan and his supporters that he was the victim of a
cabal who had forced him to resign as leader on a false pretext.
Even if the minutes had been destroyed long before the court could get its hands on them, the SSP witnesses would have faced a similar dilemma. Lawyers would have cross-examined them closely, and demanded to know why Sheridan had been forced to resign. If they had made a collective decision to lie, it would have been very difficult for a dozen witnesses to maintain the same story without contradicting each other.
What was at stake?
Before deciding whether they were duty bound to support Sheridan, it’s important to remember why they were all in court in the first place. Sheridan was not on trial. The British state was not bringing criminal charges against him. Nor had he been sued by a mighty corporate empire for libel. He had brought the case of his own free will.
It’s also important to remember what was at stake: the personal reputation of Tommy Sheridan, and nothing else. Those who have presented his eventual victory as a great triumph for socialism and the working class are deluding themselves. It makes no sense to compare Sheridan’s win to a court ruling in favour of trade unionists or peace activists – never mind a successful strike or occupation. The Murdoch empire is no doubt annoyed by Sheridan’s victory, but it will carry on regardless and mark down the libel award as small change.
Bearing this in mind, it also makes no sense to denounce the so-called
SSP 11 who testified against Sheridan as
They were simply unwilling to perjure themselves and risk spending time in prison for the sake of preserving Tommy Sheridan’s personal reputation, in a case which he had not been obliged to bring, which they had rightly advised him not to bring. As soon as the case was over, the Scottish authorities launched a perjury investigation, which is still in progress. If the
SSP 11 had all opted to perjure themselves out of loyalty to Sheridan, they would now have good reason to fear jail sentences.
By all accounts, Sheridan put in a brilliant performance in the courtroom, even if he was telling barefaced lies the whole way through. But his behaviour left a very bad taste in the mouth. If the only victim of his lies had been the Murdoch papers, then nobody would be too bothered. But he slandered some of his oldest comrades, accused them of being liars and exposed them to the risk of jail sentences for perjury. He humiliated former sexual partners, reinforcing the sexist undertones of his open letter. He created enough bitterness to keep ten feuds going, never mind one.
If the jury had based their decision on a rational examination of the evidence, it seems certain that they would have dismissed Sheridan’s case. But it appears that they based their decision instead on a gut feeling: they wanted to give Rupert Murdoch’s media empire a bloody nose, and they weren’t too bothered if Sheridan had misbehaved himself from time to time. You could say they made the wrong decision for the right reasons.
Sheridan’s behaviour after the verdict totally discredited him. He took £30,000 off the Blair supporting tabloid rag the Daily Record (a paper with a track record of bitter hostility to the SSP and to Sheridan himself) and then used its pages to denounce his one time comrades as
scabs. The rhetoric used by Sheridan’s supporters to denounce his opponents in the party was poisonous:
grasses and so on.
Sheridan initially aimed to take back the leadership of the SSP, and promised to
purge it of the faction that had opposed him. But he apparently decided that there was little or no chance of the SSP accepting him as its leader again, and broke away to form a new party, Solidarity.
Since the split, there has been one major development. The News of the World has revealed the existence of a tape passed into its hands by an SSP member, George McNeilage. The tape is a recording of a conversation McNeilage had with Sheridan shortly after he was forced to step down as leader. It confirms the account of the EC meeting given by his opponents in the party.
While Sheridan has denounced the tape as a forgery, it seems likely to be genuine, and will come as no great surprise to anyone who has examined his version of events and noted the gaping holes. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the perjury investigation will be: there may well be further developments.
In any case, the tape raises difficult questions for the rump SSP. It was very dubious for McNeilage to make the tape in the first place, but handing it over to the News of the World was totally wrong. If he took money for it, that was even worse.
This is not a point that can fairly be made by those who have sided with Sheridan. He, after all, took a generous sum from a right-wing tabloid and used its pages to abuse socialists. But two wrongs don’t make a right: anyone who has criticised Sheridan for lining up with the Daily Record has to level the same criticisms against McNeilage.
The SSP leadership responded to the tape by denying any part in its release, but welcomed the proof it seemed to offer that Sheridan was lying and they were telling the truth. They did not criticise McNeilage for giving the tape to Murdoch’s paper and opposed moves at the recent SSP conference to condemn McNeilage. The leadership appears to have the support of much of the party membership for this stance, judging by the large majority that rejected a motion condemning McNeilage.
It has been suggested that some at least of the SSP’s leading figures must have known about the existence of the tape, and discussed its contents with McNeilage. This may well be true. If they did, then they should have strongly advised him against going to the News of the World. If on the contrary they actually advised him to do what he did, then they are as guilty as he is.
But this remains a matter for speculation. What we know is that McNeilage did something that was foolish and unprincipled, and that the SSP leadership has been unwilling to criticise him. This suggests that Sheridan’s claims have become a self-fulfilling prophesy: his opponents in the party have become so embittered after the experience of the last few months that they are in danger of losing all sense of proportion.
The SSP aims to retain its place as the main radical-left force in Scotland, and beat off the challenge from Solidarity. But this has nothing in common with the News of the World’s parallel campaign to reverse their defeat at the hands of Sheridan. There shouldn’t be any co-operation between SSP members and the Murdoch empire. No matter how bad Sheridan’s behaviour has been, he is not the main enemy and exposing him shouldn’t become a fixation.
It may be understandable that people who have been slandered and exposed to the risk of jail by Sheridan’s unprincipled behaviour have a distorted perspective on things. But they should still know better. It would have been better for the SSP if Sheridan and Solidarity had been left to their own devices over the coming months: any battle between the rival organisations should be political rather than legal.
Well that’s the story so far. Reading over the details will leave most people on the left feeling depressed and frustrated (or at any rate, it should). Disagreements among socialists should be about ideas and strategies, not personality clashes and bitter squabbles between people who share the same basic ideology. Whatever happens over the coming months and years, the Scottish left has taken a pounding, and it’ll be a long time before the echoes of this row fade away.
But we might as well take a look at what’s happened and see if we can draw any broader political lessons from the whole affair. Sheridan and his supporters would say that we should draw one clear lesson: when a socialist is locked in battle with a right-wing media empire, he should have the full support of all his comrades. Anyone who fails to offer such support is betraying the socialist cause.
Scargill vs. Daily Mirror
It’s useful to compare the Sheridan affair with another scandal involving a prominent left-wing activist and a tabloid newspaper: the Scargill affair that broke in 1990. Arthur Scargill and his closest ally in the miners’ union, Peter Heathfield, were accused of financial corruption by the Daily Mirror. They were charged with diverting funds for their own personal use, and with using money intended for a miners’ hardship fund to promote their pet political causes.
The progress of the Scargill affair has been well described by Seamus Milne in his book The Enemy Within. A few key differences should be apparent to anyone who’s familiar with both stories. First of all, the allegations levelled against Scargill and Heathfield were far more serious than anything the News of the World claimed about Tommy Sheridan. For a left-wing activist, taking the members’ money to subsidise your own lifestyle is far more damning than any kind of sexual infidelity.
If the allegations against Scargill had been true, his political reputation would have been in tatters. If the allegations against Sheridan were true, it would mean that he was guilty of personal flaws and perhaps also guilty of extreme recklessness. But it would certainly not have been the end of his political career: most socialists would have been quite happy to forgive him for his mistakes.
Secondly, the allegations against Scargill and Heathfield were totally false, without a shred of justification, and could easily be shown to be false. The same cannot be said when it comes to Sheridan. Although it seems the News of the World was sloppy and got some of the details wrong with its stories, Sheridan was definitely…[as above – Ed]
Going further, there’s another crucial difference. The Scargill affair was the product of a determined campaign to discredit Arthur Scargill and break the power of the miners’ union for good. This campaign was backed by the Tory government and the Labour Party leadership, it was assisted by the secret state, and it was launched by the Mirror’s owner Robert Maxwell. Scargill and Heathfield had no choice but to defy the campaign any way they could, and were entitled to expect support from every honest socialist.
It seems unlikely that the tabloid stories about Sheridan were the product of a similar campaign. To be sure, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire would have been quite happy to damage the reputation of a prominent left-winger. But his papers have had no problem publishing similar stories about Tory or New Labour politicians. The chances are, if Sheridan had been a member of a right-wing party, his personal life would have been exposed in exactly the same way.
Even if we assume that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered his editors to dish the dirt on Tommy Sheridan because he wanted to undermine the SSP, it would have been very easy for Sheridan to dodge the bullet. If he had accepted the advice of the SSP leadership when the stories first broke, the whole crisis would have been avoided. If Murdoch really wanted to damage the SSP, he must be absolutely delighted with the outcome of Sheridan’s libel case, which has left the Scottish left bitterly divided and weakened. If he’s capable of seeing things objectively, £200,000 wasn’t too much of a price to pay for doing so much damage to the left-wing forces in Scotland.
Leaders and accountability
The fact that Sheridan refused to take that advice suggest one of the most obvious political lessons that can be drawn from the whole affair. The SSP were too dependent on Sheridan. They used his personality to build the party and have paid the price. This is now acknowledged by most people in what remains of the SSP.
They recall all the times they introduced themselves to people in the street by saying
we’re from the SSP, you know, Tommy Sheridan’s party and admit that they’re paying the price for it now. The SSP are hardly the first left group to be dependent on one public face. The Labour left relied on Tony Benn in the early 80s, Militant in Liverpool depended on Derek Hatton, RESPECT is totally dependent on George Galloway. In Ireland, Joe Higgins is probably known to far more people than his party.
It’s unlikely that the left can do without public leaders altogether. The key question is, how we hold them accountable? Obviously, democratic structures are needed within the organisation. But this isn’t enough. While RESPECT has no effective way of keeping George Galloway on a leash, in theory the SSP should have had the structures needed to prevent Sheridan from going down his disastrous path.
What was lacking was a culture of accountability. It seems as if Sheridan let his position as the public face of the SSP go to his head, and thought of himself as the personification of the socialist cause in Scotland. His own personal reputation was inseparable from that cause, and had to be protected at all costs.
The left needs its leaders to be humble. Even if the media presents them as the be-all and end-all of their organisation, that sort of attitude should be stamped on within the party. And they should never be indispensable: there should be a collective leadership, with a number of people capable of performing a role as spokesperson.
There were other problems with the functioning of the SSP that have been revealed by the crisis. The regional organisers of the party were sometimes completely autonomous, as was shown when some organisers were able to take whole sections of the SSP with them into Solidarity. It seems as if there was a drift away from grass roots activism after the party’s success in the 2003 Scottish assembly elections, as many activists dropped out and those that remained were often diverted into support for the parliamentary reps.
A discussion has begun in the rump SSP about any of these problems. It’s in its early stages yet, but there seems to be a consensus that it’s necessary to engage members to a much greater extent, with participatory education and more horizontal communication between branches. It remains to be seen what this discussion will produce in the end, but it’s pointing in the right direction at least.
Solidarity, on the other hand, seems likely to re-produce all the problems that arose in the SSP, on a grander scale. The new organisation will be totally dependent on the personality of Tommy Sheridan. It will be a leader-based party like RESPECT. It’s possible to imagine the SSP removing Colin Fox as its convenor or side lining other figures in the current leadership. But it’s impossible to imagine Solidarity without Sheridan. He will be a law unto himself, and there’s no telling where he will end up.
Two more points are worth making about attitudes that have done enormous damage to the left in the past, and have been very much in evidence during the SSP’s crisis. The first concerns the tendency of far-left organisations to proclaim their own infallibility. Groups have often tended to forget about their own mistakes, and to insist that every new development simply confirms that they were right all along about everything.
This goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to chuck yesterday’s party line in the bin when it no longer suits present requirements. The statements issued by the CWI and the SWP over the last few months have betrayed attitudes of this sort. For the CWI, the SSP’s crisis simply confirms everything they have been saying about the party since its leading members broke with their own organisation several years ago. Why this should be the case is not obvious to the uninitiated, since these criticisms were levelled at Sheridan and his former allies in equal measure. Past criticisms of Sheridan as a
reformist and a
nationalist have been quietly shelved.
The SWP has been equally keen to proclaim how right it was in everything it has said about the Scottish left. The flip side of this crude certainty is the need to bury evidence of past mistakes and forget all about drastic U-turns. So nothing is ever learnt from mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes: they only become a problem when they are not acknowledged, and no lessons are drawn from them. The myth of infallibility is bound to result in grave errors.
The second point concerns an attitude that has been even more damaging in the history of the left: the belief that the end justifies the means. This was clearly the way Sheridan saw things: not only was it ok to lie in order to give the Murdoch empire a bloody nose, it was ok to slander his comrades and humiliate his former sexual partners in public. It’s also the way his new allies in the SWP and the CWI see things. And the controversy regarding the Sheridan tape suggests that the rump SSP leadership aren’t innocent of that way of thinking either.
This kind of moral relativism has done enormous harm to the socialist movement. It’s true that it may sometimes be necessary to do things that are unpleasant and undesirable. But once you start accepting the idea that it’s ok to trample over people in the name of the greater good, it’s a slippery slope. A bit of personal integrity and respect for other people is essential for any socialist who wants to keep on the right path.
Moral relativism has been common enough on the Marxist left. While Marxism need not lead to this kind of attitude, it does contain some elements that make it more likely. As a strongly secular ideology, it naturally rejects the idea that moral principles have been established for all eternity by any higher being. And by asserting that all ideologies are the product of class societies (which is true as far as it goes), it leaves the door open to the argument that all morality is
To prevent these elements in Marxism from leading to a corrupt and cynical attitude that
anything goes as long as it advances the cause, it’s important to keep hold of some basic principles. It’s not necessary to believe in God to accept that some moral principles are likely to be valid in almost every situation – otherwise we’d have to say that it was ok to torture a child if it made the triumph of socialism more likely. This is not a melodramatic example, since equally vile things were done in the name of socialism in the last century and may be done again if lessons aren’t learnt from the experience.