Allan Armstrong highlights some of the lessons to be learned from the Sheridan saga

The split on the Scottish Left between celebrity populist and genuine socialist politics

On May 1st, 2003 six Scottish Socialist Party members were elected to Holyrood. From January 26th, 2011, by far the best-known (former) member of the SSP, Tommy Sheridan, is serving a three year jail sentence for committing perjury, following in the footsteps of Lord Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken. At a time of unprecedented attacks on the working class, led by a Tory-Lib-Dem government at Westminster, transmitted by an SNP government in Holyrood, and taken up by Labour, SNP, Lib-Dem and Tory councillors throughout Scotland, there is only one remaining socialist (SSP) representative – Jim Bollan, the councillor for the Leven ward in West Dunbartonshire.

How has this sad state of affairs come to pass, and is there anything socialists can usefully learn from all this? Perhaps the most immediate lesson is the incompatibility of trying to build a socialist organisation through promoting a celebrity leader. Furthermore, this has been highlighted, in the UK, not only by the example of Tommy Sheridan, but also of Derek Hatton (CWI/Militant), Arthur Scargill (Socialist Labour Party) Ken Livingstone (one-time Left independent) and George Galloway (Respect). However, the fact that the same mistake keeps repeating itself shows that a significant section of the Left in the UK is more attracted to populist politics, than to genuine socialist politics, where all members are treated as equals and are encouraged to think for themselves.

Another shortcoming has been the failure of much of the Left in Scotland, following from Tommy Sheridan’s lead, to be able to deal with sexual politics. In the face of salacious newspaper attacks regarding their sex lives, Bertie Ahern and John Prescott, to name but two prominent politicians, have managed to handle the press far better. “So what?” or, “People’s sexual lives are a private matter”, should have been the obvious response by any socialist to the News of the World accusations.

Tommy could not do this because his populist politics had led him, at every media opportunity, to cultivate his own celebrity image. He portrayed himself as being part of ‘the perfect family’ – Tommy, Gail and “my little princess”, Gabrielle (which perhaps revealingly puts Tommy and Gail in the position of king and queen!)

This highlights how deeply bourgeois ideology, including their hypocritical ‘morality’, is embedded in our class. It points to the urgent need for a discussion amongst socialists as to what attitudes and practice, regarding personal sexual and emotional relations, we might positively promote. At the moment we appear to have few answers to such questions and it offers our enemies a permanent Achilles heel to wound us.

Socialists are not sexual prudes and should defend a person’s right to engage in any consensual sexual activity of their choice. They should not be drawn into the sleaze mongering of the tabloid press, whether it be the News of the World or the Daily Record. However, any socialist makes him or herself a hostage to fortune, if they demonstrate hypocrisy in their attitudes and behaviour in this particular arena. John Major’s public support for ‘family values’, whilst personally leading a somewhat different private life, had already demonstrated how the media would deal with such hypocrisy.

In both Sheridan’s ill-considered court case against the News of the World and the subsequent perjury trial, he attempted to appeal to the jury as a guiltless Daniel O’Donnell-type figure, whilst hitting out at the ‘sexual misdemeanors’, mental health and socialist factionalism of the other witnesses. Having abandoned any possible socialist grounds for fending off attacks by the gutter press or the state, Sheridan demonstrated the depths to which he was prepared to go to protect only himself – something his remaining political allies, and even friends and family would be well advised to take note of.

A populist Solidarity and a socialist SSP

The Left in Scotland is now clearly divided. It includes those who promote populist celebrity politics. The majority of populist celebrity supporters are to be found in Solidarity, the Scottish Socialist Movement, which constitutes the Tommy Sheridan Fan club. Indeed that is about the only thing that unites this unprincipled political ‘marriage of convenience’. Sheridan also enjoys the support of a number of jaundiced journalists, sometimes former Left supporters, who are now bitterly hostile to organised socialist politics, but are quite happy with individual colourful celebrity politicians, who provide good press copy.

Opposing such populist celebrity politics are those, primarily in the SSP, who have learned from their earlier mistake of tolerating Tommy Sheridan as he transformed himself into an increasingly self-promotional celebrity figure. He is no longer reined in by any platform discipline, following the collapse of the International Socialist Movement he was a member of, along with the majority amongst the SSP leadership.

Unfortunately, though, despite there being a now deep divide amongst the Left in Scotland, there are still some remaining shared political characteristics, held at the two leadership levels. If these aren’t also dealt with firmly in the aftermath of the perjury trial, this will prevent any political recovery by the SSP.

In particular, neither Sheridan’s supporters, nor the majority of the SSP leadership, have learned one particular fundamental lesson when it comes to the advance of principled socialist politics. You do not go to the bourgeois courts for rulings on how socialists conduct themselves. Such appeals should only be made to the democratic institutions of our class. What chance have socialists got of bringing about socialism in the face of capitalist economic and state power, if we have to run to their courts to sort out our problems in the here and now?

The original unanimous SSP Executive Committee (EC) decision of November 9th, 2004, to advise Tommy not to proceed with his court case, was not taken on the grounds of principle, but on the tactical grounds that the truth behind the sexual allegations would likely surface at some time. Instead of Tommy being instructed to stand down because he was not prepared to take unanimous party advice, a deal was cobbled together, which allowed him to pursue his case as ‘private matter’. The consequences of this misguided decision (as if the media and state were ever going to treat Tommy Sheridan as a non-political private individual) soon became apparent.

Some among the populist wing of the SSP, who could not imagine the party’s existence without Tommy as leader, started to make their guilty annoyance known in leaks to the bourgeois press, before the November 27th National Council (NC) meeting. Later, Alan McCombes, now trying to disentangle an SSP leadership from its previous unquestioning public support for Tommy, responded to this provocation by providing an affidavit to the press, which explained the SSP leadership majority’s actions.

The people, who were effectively bypassed by both sides, were the ordinary SSP members. With the agreement of both sets of protagonists, members had been denied access at the November 27th NC meeting to the minutes of the 9th November EC meeting. Further down the line, the consequences of this became clear. On May 16th, 2006, the state stepped in. Lady Smith decided, at the Edinburgh Court of Session, to help the News of the World, by demanding the SSP hand over the minutes. Alan McCombes quite correctly refused to hand over the minutes. He ended up in Saughton Jail on May 26th as a consequence – a high price to pay for this earlier mistake.

Sheridan pulls the populists and the CWI and SWP behind his strategy of deceit

This was the point at which Tommy should have stepped in and said that enough was enough. He should then have dropped his court case, now that the full consequences of his course of action had become apparent. Some of his remaining supporters, including the recently elected Convenor, Colin Fox, did realise that Tommy’s ‘game was now up’. To their credit, they moved over to the camp of those in the SSP leadership majority who were trying to disentangle themselves from a situation of the party’s own making, in the best possible manner considering the difficult circumstances they now found themselves in.

However, Tommy decided to adopt another course of action. He began to group an unholy alliance around himself. This group consisted of the Sheridanistas (his unquestioning supporters in the party) and the hard-wired sectarians amongst the SWP and CWI (who had quite different and mutually antagonistic political agendas). With a jailed Alan McCombes now the centre of members’ and wider media attraction, Tommy helped to devise a scheme, which would put him back in the media limelight.

His supporters, now calling themselves the SSP Majority, decided to push for an emergency National Council meeting on May 28th 2006, which they packed. Here Tommy produced his hate-mongering ‘Open Letter’. This lead encouraged his supporters to reduce the meeting to a bear garden, in a marked break from previous SSP practice.

As a result, they won a National Council majority calling for Alan McCombes to hand over the minutes to the courts. However, Tommy’s allies had written up a false set of minutes, which they had already handed over. This action provided the state with the list of people who would be dragged before court to testify, whilst missing out the names of Tommy’s supporters, who had also given their backing to the original genuine set of minutes. From this point onwards, Tommy was able to publicly entangle his supporters in his own continued deceptions. These involved the concoction of an ever more bizarre set of lies.

The biggest of these lies was that it was the SSP leadership majority who were themselves lying over his revelations at the original EC meeting. Here there had been unanimous agreement for the course of action adopted.

Thus the heart of Tommy’s court case against the News of the World was to be the presentation of a completely false story, which involved the sacrifice of the SSP Secretary, Barbara Scott, for doing her job, and of those leading SSP members, including four MSPs, Frances Curran, Colin Fox (until recently Sheridan’s ally), Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie, who refused to perjure themselves so that he could use his own political position and celebrity status to extract a substantial sum of money from the News of the World for his wife, Gail. Tommy gave his reason for pursuing his case in an interview with Janet Christie, in the Scotland on Sunday (12.8.07) supplement article, entitled At Home With Tommy Sheridan, “Regardless of whether we get the money or not, it would be Gail’s money and she can do whatever she wants with it”.

The fruits of the politics of populism were made starkly clear. ‘Lesser’ members had to sacrifice themselves for the ‘great leader’.

The real role of SSP platforms and Sheridan’s playing to antisocialist prejudice

Tommy also decided to appeal to the anti-socialist prejudice of the media, and hopefully, for him, of the majority of the jurors. This meant he conjured up a secret faction, which had always been out to get him. He called this previously non-existent organisation the ‘United Left’. The real United Left only formed, on June 11th, 2006, as a temporary platform, in self defence, after the antics of Tommy’s supporters in the SSP Majority platform, at the May 28th NC meeting.

Tommy’s own supporters did include the longstanding factionalists of the SWP and CWI, but even they had been forced to moderate their sectarian practices at earlier SSP gatherings, when a united SSP membership showed low toleration for such behaviour.

Back in November 2004, though, Tommy and some of his later supporters, such as Steve Arnott and Jock Penman, were in the same platform, the International Socialist Movement, as Keith Baldassara, Frances Curran, Catriona Grant, Alan McCombes, Richie Venton and others, who ended up on the opposite sides as the internal dispute developed.

However, many people, who came to oppose Tommy’s utterly wrong-headed course of action, were never members of the ISM, or the SSP Women’s Network in 2004, and didn’t become members of the United Left in 2006. The accusation of a ‘faction-ridden’ party was a central component in Tommy’s case. The SSP could therefore be denigrated by cynical journalists and pilloried in front of the jurors. Such anti-socialist baiting may well have contributed to Tommy’s victory in his first court case. He certainly thought so, because he resorted to the same tactic in the perjury trial, where he made barbed comments about the CWI, some of whom were now his allies and supporting courtroom witnesses!

Sheridan, as a celebrity populist politician, does not want to be held accountable to any political organisation, whether it be a platform, party or ‘movement’. Appeals to a celebrity promoting media, or being seen publicly in the company of other celebrities, are the ways by which he now gains much of his political support. A backing party or ‘movement’ may provide additional help, but only if it is constituted as a ‘Tommy Sheridan Fan Club’, which never questions the ‘great leader’.

When Tommy’s original case came to court, the jurors quite rightly dismissed the evidence of all those who had been paid by the News of the World. However, despite Tommy’s shameful personalised attacks, and the hyped-up accusations of factionalising, to appeal to anti-socialist prejudice, other SSP witnesses held back, not wishing to provide aid to the News of the World. (Sheridan was to shamelessly use the fact that SSP witnesses did not reveal his full duplicity at this trial, in his attempt to undermine them in the subsequent perjury trial; whilst also continuing with his anti-socialist diatribes in court). These witnesses had absolutely nothing to gain except their self-respect. They were looking to a post-trial SSP conference to hold Tommy to account.

When Tommy was acquitted on 4th August 2006, SSP Convenor, Colin Fox welcomed his victory over the News of the World. Tommy’s wrecking anti-party actions could now be debated, along with any criticisms of the leadership majority’s handling of the case, where they always should have been – within the party itself. Tommy announced that he was standing for Convenor against Colin.

So members were now provided with a clear choice. On one hand were those who supported populist celebrity politics, and who thought that some party leaders held a privileged position, which it was the duty of others to uphold at whatever personal cost; and in which political sects could behave as they liked. On the other hand were those who wanted to build a principled socialist organisation, where all members were treated as equal, and where platforms worked for the greater good of the party, by using their different political experiences to lift party debate and action to a higher level.

However, this choice was such an obvious ‘no-brainer’ that Tommy and his allies, had to devise another course of action to avoid the immediate consequences of their actions, just as in the aftermath of the release of Alan McCombes from jail. On no account would Tommy face the accountability of the wider SSP membership.

Tommy was now confident that his own political supporters would never attempt to bring him to account. So he upped the ante, and wrote a disgusting and well-paid article in the Daily Record, attacking those SSP members who had opposed him, showing particular vehemence for the women involved. Just as the two sets of court proceedings have revealed a massive gap between Tommy, ‘the perfect family man’, and his secret sexual alter ego; so his press and courtroom attacks on women have highlighted the massive gap between Tommy, ‘the charmer of the ladies’, and his underlying misogynism. Some of his supporters quickly jumped to order.

However, the prime purpose of Sheridan’s ‘scab’ attack in the Daily Record was to create a smokescreen to justify not being held to account at the planned special SSP Conference. Instead, a new party, Solidarity, would be formed. The condition for membership was unquestioning public support for Tommy, right or wrong. The ‘great leader’ was effectively ‘anointed’ at Solidarity’s founding conference, to the accompaniment of his mother Alice Sheridan singing The Impossible Dream! The leaderships of the CWI and SWP had already signed up. They demanded only that they be allowed to behave in an equally unaccountable way; but in their cases, not to promote any personal celebrity status, but their own sectarian ends.

Sheridan leads his followers into the political desert

Some claim that Sheridan has become such a victim of his own ego that he has started to believe all his own fabrications. If this is the case, then Solidarity’s leaders also entered Sheridan’s fantasy world. They publicly claimed that Solidarity would overtake the six MSPs gained by the SSP in 2003, at the next Holyrood election in 2007. And his political advisors in the CWI and SWP were meant to be sharp Marxist politicians, able to see the balance of class and political forces! In the end, although every Solidarity candidate, whether at Holyrood or council level, stood under the ‘Tommy Sheridan’ brand label; but not even Sheridan was able to hold on to his Holyrood seat.

However, one Solidarity member, Ruth Brown, had been indeed persuaded that Solidarity offered the best new political opportunities. She was elected in Glasgow as their sole councillor (in the same election as the very different and principled socialist, Jim Bollan in West Dunbartonshire). However, she soon came to realise that joining Solidarity was not her best career move. So she joined the Labour Party, quickly throwing her lot in with its corrupt leader, the now sacked Stephen Purcell!

The perjury investigations provide a cover for state intelligence-gathering and a socialist-baiting trial

The clearest indication that some Solidarity members had lost all sense of reality, and were ‘tripping out’ on a hyped-up sectarian triumphalism, was a new call made by certain of their supporters in the media. An article in the Edinburgh Evening News suggested that those SSP members, who had failed to back Sheridan in court, should face perjury charges, now that he had won his court case. This was not a smart move! Quite clearly, the state, having already been provided with the opportunity to intervene in the internal affairs of the SSP, through Sheridan’s earlier actions, quickly took up this invitation. Furthermore, their perjury investigations weren’t confined to the SSP witnesses.

It was certainly the case that either one side or another had perjured itself in court. Perjury in court is an everyday event, which is normally ignored. However, when it involves elected public figures, who misuse their position for personal gain (or to publicly discredit and undermine another elected representative, if Sheridan’s accusations had been true), then the state is much more likely to step in. This is true whatever the politics of the accused, as the case of the Archer and Aitken, two Tories, had already shown.

However, there was an additional reason why the state was eager to finance this particular perjury case. The police investigation would be useful cover for a massive intelligence-gathering exercise on the Left; whilst the ensuing court case would provide the opportunity to set-up a piece of political theatre, in which socialists would publicly tear each other to pieces. The key SSP witnesses, and even a few of the Solidarity witnesses, tried to avoid falling into this particular trap in court, but Sheridan himself played to the anti-socialist and populist prejudices with great gusto. Therefore, from the state’s point of view, the £4M on the police investigation and the court case was well spent.

Politically responsible and irresponsible actions from the SSP leadership

To their great credit, leading SSP and former SSP activists – including Barbara Scott, Alan McCombes, Richie Venton, Keith Baldassara, Frances Curran, Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie and Colin Fox, spoke truthfully and without personal animosity in court. It was their evidence, coupled to that of a number of completely independent witnesses, which vindicated the SSP in the eyes of the jury.

However, Sheridan’s provocative and calculated Daily Record attack on August 7th, 2006, had pushed some SSP members to politically indefensible actions, despite the SSP’s own 2006 post-trial Conference decisions. These made it clear that any resort to bourgeois courts or media to settle political grievances was unacceptable.

George McNeilage’s decision to take £200,000 from the News of the World for Tommy’s taped ‘confession’ completely undermined his credibility before any serious jury member, who would discount paid-for ‘evidence’. Worse still, it threatened to undermine those SSP members trying to clear their name with no personal gain, other than upholding their commitment to truth and integrity. Once the party conference had taken a decision on how members should conduct themselves, McNeilage’s actions should have been publicly disowned.

Sheridan’s Daily Record attack also provoked an understandably irate Frances Curran, now the SSP party co-spokesperson, to go to the court for a ruling against his completely false accusation of ‘scabbing’. Once again, this was against the 2006 SSP post-split conference decision opposing any such course of action. The hold of old CWI politics over otherwise very critical former members was surely demonstrated in Frances’ belief that a bourgeois court would find any accusation of ‘scabbing’ reprehensible. Scabbing is something that is actively encouraged under the law. The decision of the SSP leadership to let Frances go ahead, not with official party backing, but as a private individual, just repeated the earlier mistake made with Sheridan at the November 26th 2004 EC. But, at least, Sheridan was asked to stand down whilst he did so!

Furthermore, other leading members’ resort to grandstanding to prevent any meaningful discussion at Conference, EC or NC meetings on socialist unity, whilst the perjury case was proceeding, left many existing and former members, as well as supporters, wondering whether the SSP leadership is really serious about socialist unity. Or, did they want this to take second place to a permanent war with Sheridan and Solidarity. Once again, such a dead-end approach is in complete opposition to the unanimously adopted motion on socialist unity, taken at the post-split 2006 conference.

Since the Sheridan perjury trial verdict on December 23rd, some SSP members’ contributions have taken a similar triumphalist tone to that of leading Solidarity members after Sheridan’s court victory on August 4th, 2006.

Sheridan now faces a jail sentence, which will have a devastating effect, particularly on his family. Although the misuse of an elected representative’s position for personal gain should indeed be recognised as an offence (just as socialists condemn MPs financial corruption at Westminster), the SSP should publicly declare its opposition to Sheridan’s imprisonment. Socialists are against jailing for nonviolent offences.

The recent Scottish Socialist Youth post-perjury trial statement displays some unwelcome triumphalist features, but is at least clear on opposing Sheridan’s jailing and the need for restorative justice. Sheridan and Solidarity leaders’ actions have wrecked the hard fought for socialist unity, which had shown its greatest strength in 2003. Neither the state nor the bourgeois courts have any interest in defending this legacy – indeed quite the opposite. It is for these crimes that Sheridan should face real accountability for his actions in democratic socialist and working class arenas. This is what he so assiduously avoided when he ran away from the planned 2006 post-trial SSP Conference.

Some people, though, ended joining up Solidarity for misguided reasons. This included lack of understanding of what was really going on (not helped by the SSP leadership majority’s later regretted, own ‘private deal’ with Sheridan), prior political allegiances and personal friendships. Many will now see the complete failure of the course of action pursued by Solidarity’s leadership, with the aid of the leaderships of both the CWI and SWP. This is why the SSP needs to re-emphasise its 2006 post-split Conference decision to welcome such members back without recriminations.

Rebuilding socialist unity on sound principles

However, all members, whether already in the party, re-joining, or coming in as completely new members, should be informed that the organisation they are in, or coming to, completely rejects celebrity populist politics, treats everybody equally, and encourages independent thinking. It also refuses to resort to bourgeois courts or the media for rulings on how it, or any of its members, conduct their political lives. If these lessons are indeed leaned and taken on board, then socialists in Scotland (and hopefully elsewhere too) will be in a much better position to develop the sort of organisation, which still needs to be built. This is so we can begin to confront the rulers of the current crisis-ridden corporate imperial global order and UK state, and all those political parties, which continue to defend the completely indefensible. This would make a major contribution to rebuilding socialist unity.