Oct 23 2011

Mary McGregor reviews ‘Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story’, by Alan McCombes

Like many others who have been members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) for a number of years, I did not want to read Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes. As a founder member of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) and then the SSP, I had been filled with hope (but with no illusions) about the potential of this party as a unifying force in Scottish politics. It felt like the best chance we had had in my lifetime of building a non-sectarian, democratic, socialist party that would allow for open dissent and comradely debate. It felt for a while like the dogma so many of us had been steeled in, could be replaced by a willingness to listen and to understand, supported by democratic and accountable structures.

It was not all a bed of roses. These democratic strides had to be fought for every inch of the way. The constitution had to be protected and battles had to be waged in its defence. As a member of a very small platform, taking on the numerical superiority of other platforms, such as the CWI, the SWP and the ISM, could be pretty uncomfortable. But – and the but was huge- it was the most democratic, socialist organisation in Europe, blending campaigning and mass participation with significant electoral success in the Scottish parliament. The SSP gained first one MSP, in the form of the eponymous villain in Alan’s book, then followed on with the election of six MSPs; more than half of whom were women! Instead of small dispirited groups who hated each other plying their separate wares on Saturday morning stalls and heckling passers by, we were part of a movement where people participated in our campaigns and activities and queued to sign our petitions, knew what we stood for and liked it.

So, being part of this movement and then to watch it crumble so ignominiously before our eyes as Tommy Sheridan embarked on his Kamikaze mission against the News of the World (NOTW) was not a part of my life I wanted to revisit via the pages of Alan McCombes’ book. However…… we can only learn from mistakes if we understand them. So, Alan’s book must be an important part of that process. We may never really understand just how Tommy’s mind worked through this time but if anyone could shed light on some of the causes of the debacle, then surely it would be Alan McCombes – by his own admission, the mentor, the architect, the creator of Tommy Sheridan, the icon.

For those of us who were there, there was not a lot new in this book. It was a very easy read and McCombes’ style, though laden with simile and metaphor, has a charm, which is hypnotic. McCombes does infuse the past with a wistful rosy glow and his sincerity and pain at seeing his creation turn against him is palpable. McCombes himself comes over as the thoughtful, courageous, political apparatchik that he is. However, the book is as much about the fatal flaws of the SSP as it is about Tommy’s fatal flaw.

The RCN has rightly asserted from the start that the split in the socialist movement in Scotland can be laid at the door of Tommy Sheridan, aided and abetted by the CWI and SWP. Through his vanity and arrogance, he was prepared to sacrifice the movement to protect his image. He seemed to believe his own lies and even more worryingly was supported in pursuit of his greater glory by those in the CWI and SWP who also knew the truth but by some absurd warped logic believed it was OK to lie because those lies were against the NOTW. The fact that they were also lying to the working class became irrelevant.

Alan’s book captures the madness of the time effectively. Particularly the National Council, which took place while he was in jail defending the minutes of an SSP Executive meeting. While reading about it, I could imagine folk who weren’t there thinking it could not have been that bad. Well it was. It was probably the first time I had seen the collective, destructive power of Tommy and his new allies given full vent. Although I do not recall anyone being hit, it was none the less a violent, vicious and intimidating meeting. There was literally baying for the blood of those who refused to support Tommy. It was a meeting, which shamed the socialist movement and publicly marked the end of everything the SSP had stood for. I was no great fan of Tommy and he had turned his wrath on me on a number of previous occasions but I was shocked at this screaming, parody of a socialist leader who ranted at his enemies.

Perhaps I would not have been so shocked if I had known what Alan and Frances, and Keith and Colin all knew. Maybe if I had realised what a creation Tommy had been from the start then I would have known that this kind of behaviour was possible. It was like he had won an X Factor type competition to become the poster boy of the Scottish left. Because, what Alan’s book does make clear, is that the myth of Tommy Sheridan was a façade. He was a media creation. He oozed warmth and sincerity and cultivated the idea that he was the personification of fairness and justice. Yes he did great things – the Poll Tax imprisonment, the warrant sales bill, the oratory which could touch people’s hearts in a gifted way but it was part of an act, of a role he had chosen to play. It was a role in which he was supported and coached and protected within by his former comrades. According to Alan, Tommy was in fact shallow, self centred, lacking in political understanding and messianic from the start.

So how does this reflect on the SSP and particularly the ranks of the ISM platform from whence Tommy came? Where was the culpability on the part of the SSP in what followed on from the NOTW revelations? Well Alan’s book shows how a cult of the individual, while yielding short-term benefits, is ultimately dangerous and destructive – it is anti democratic. Tommy, like ALL other leaders, needed to be under democratic control so that his undoubted talents could be used effectively. However, within the movement and the party, he should have had no special dispensations, rights or privileges.  Tommy’s private life is his business. What Gail knew, what was accepted within their relationship, is all speculation. McCombes is right when he makes it clear that there was no Calvinistic witch-hunt against Tommy because of his sexual proclivities. The problem was that having been allowed by the party to court the media using his Mr Clean family man image, charges of liar, cheat and hypocrite could easily have been thrown at him and the SSP when it came out. Had, of course, Sheridan resigned as convenor and let it blow over; no one would have cared after the furore had died down. Instead it was Tommy who insisted on taking the NOTW to court!

When Alan explains why the minutes of the Executive meeting where Tommy told the truth were kept secret, we can see another manifestation of the SSP leadership’s fatal flaw. It was done out of concern for Tommy and his family. The irony when Tommy shows no concern for the families of those he brands as liars and scabs is not lost. However, this came before party democracy. Obviously at that stage Alan and the Executive thought the matter could be contained but at the expense of the membership. Ultimately the party leadership believed the membership had to be protected or could not be trusted.

And so it went on with behind the scenes machinations, secret meetings, secret affidavits and secret filming. Alan does the party the courtesy through the book of explaining why what happened did and why the SSP leadership took the decisions it did at each stage. It does not however mitigate the fact that during this time, loyal party members were treated as people who could not understand the full implications of what was happening. Old friendships and loyalties are once more put above party policy and democracy as neither in the book nor at any subsequent party meeting has George McNeilage been condemned by the leadership for selling his story to the NOTW.

The sacrifices that Alan and the others have made for the socialist movement are undeniable. Downfall catalogues the misery brought to their lives during this process. The book must undoubtedly have been cathartic and it was necessary. It was intended to vindicate the position of all those dragged into court against their will and cross examined by a comrade that had been revered by substantial sections of the working class of this nation. And it does that very well.

By writing the book, I hope Alan can see the mistakes that were made were not all Tommy’s, not all his, nor the leadership’s, but mistakes we all made or allowed to happen. After reading this, I became more convinced than ever before that a new type of politics is necessary if we are to attract people into socialist activity and keep them there. We need a politics that is open, democratic and where all party members are equal. We need a politics, which can debate, question and hold to account those privileged enough to be chosen to lead us. We need a politics where disagreements are not seen as tests of friendships and where principles are more important than appeasing someone’s ego. We need a politics which is compassionate and caring but at the same time, determined and honest.

The SSP went some of the way to providing this but certainly during the crisis and sadly since the imprisonment of Tommy Sheridan, we have seen signs that the damage done by Tommy Sheridan has had a catastrophic effect on the SSP, its democratic structures and its potential as a uniting force in Scottish working class politics. It is very sad but it is too easy just to blame Tommy. We need to look forward to a party where the myth of Tommy Sheridan or his like does not have to be created.

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11 Responses to “Mary McGregor reviews ‘Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story’, by Alan McCombes”

  1. Mhairi McAlpine says:

    “the mistakes that were made were not all Tommy’s, not all his, nor the leadership’s, but mistakes we all made or allowed to happen”

    This is absolutely critical. Yes, if Sheridan hadn’t been such a fool this would all never have happened, but there was obviously something fundamentally flawed in the SSP that Sheridan could wreck it so comprehensively. At the same time there was obviously strength in the SSP that he didn’t wreck socialism by managing to persuade the SSP leadership to lie and cover up for his flaws and failings.

    The lessons of the SSP are things that we have to take into any new movements. These lessons are not new ones, but the SSP experience is a sharp reminder of them – particularly that charismatic leaders can overwhelm democratic processes; that parliamentary engagement has its risks as well as its benefits; that the corporate media are not our friends; that socialism cannot be built without an understanding of the gendered, racial and heteronomative power structures that support the class system but above all that socialism is larger than any one person, any one organisation or any one party.

  2. Allan Armstrong says:

    “but there was obviously something fundamentally flawed in the SSP that Sheridan could wreck it so comprehensively”

    Mhairi gets to the heart of the matter here. The political conditions which allowed the SSA/SSP to emerge were provided by success of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign and the gallop to the Right by New Labour.

    Although smaller groups had been arguing for such a formation as the SSA since 1990, the CWI/ISM had the critical mass to make this happen. They had also learned two lessons which were vital for setting up the SSA – i) that socialist political activity which could have a wider political effect could be organised outside the Labour Party, and ii) that the traditional Brit Left approach to the National Question in Scotland was flawed and needed addressing.

    These two conditions provided the political basis for the initial success of the SSA and SSP. Furthermore, as the ISM moved into discussions and debate with others, in the context of trying to achieve wider socialist unity, they began to abandon some of the sectarian practices which characterised so much of the British Left (such as the SWP). This even led them to break with their CWI sponsors (who also retained their old British Left sectarian methods). One of the greatest achievements of the SSP (before the notorious NC) was the cultivation of a fraternal and democratic debating atmosphere, which, for a time, even reined in the sectarian excesses of the SWP and CWI!

    However, there was never a full break with the old sectarian methods by the ISM leadership. It was impossible for members to find out who the SSP membership actually were, and who paid subs – something that particularly favoured the Glasgow base of the ISM. Leadership distrust of the wider membership remained, highlighted by the attempt (which badly misfired) of keeping the membership in the dark about the EC deal with Sheridan (minutes withheld); and the later suppression of debate over socialist unity on the spurious grounds that the courts would not permit it.

    Furthermore, both sides of the former ISM involved in the split have accepted that the courts are a legitimate arena for settling disputes between socialists. What chance have we got of persuading others that we are creating an organisation that can challenge capitalism if we have to turn to the bourgeois courts to rule on our conduct?

    The Sheridan debacle also managed to disguise some of the emerging problems which the SSP would have had to face anyhow. The SSP wasn’t the only Left party in Europe to do badly in the post-2003 elections. The whole Left was on the retreat electorally because of its failure to stop the Iraq war. Ironically, even without the Sheridan debacle, it is likely, after the 2007 Holyrood election, that the SSP would only have had one remaining MSP – Tommy Sheridan!

    Mhairi also alludes to the creeping parliamentarianism which began to take over the SSP (accentuated by the retreats in the wider class struggle). Some members, e.g. Hugh Kerr, initially raised the issue of giving the SNP a clear run in Holyrood elections. I am fairly sure that if the numbers of elected SSP MSPs had been sufficient to decide the difference between having an SNP or a New Labour government at Holyrood, there would have been quite a strong tendency within the SSP recommending support for the SNP. Tailending the SNP over the constitution still remains a problem.

    Support for a non-nationalist, socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ approach has certainly grown within the SSP, but I fear that many would happily join the SNP’s proposed pro-Crown, pro-sterling, pro-NATO, Independence Lite/Devolution Max referendum campaign, and turn their backs on one of the SSP’s greatest succeses – the independent republican Calton Hill Declaration.

    In other words, the original conditions, which had allowed the SSP to grow successfully, have been changing and provided new challenges. These new challenges needed new political answers. The Sheridan debacle prevented this necessary learning process from taking place.

    Mhairi raises some of the vital issues which also need to be addressed. However, given the shrinkage of the SSP much of this debate will now have to take outside its ranks, although I hope that it will be possible to genuinely further such debates within the SSP too. We need to prepare for a new and still very necessary socialist unity project in Scotland (and beyond), which can take on board all these lessons.

  3. Iain Robertson says:

    Mhairi and Allan have initiated a critically important discussion concerning the big question – How should the ‘Left’ conduct itself in pursuit of the emancipation and liberation of human kind?
    I want to talk about one area I feel is overlooked – the language we use. For example, we talk of ‘building’ socialism, maybe forgetting that this is a metaphor and so become constrained by and mis-directed by the metaphor. To ‘build’ socialism [or communism] invites images of ranks of willing workers directed by the all knowing planners consulting carefully drawn charts based on scientifically proven formulae that only they, the planners, fully understand. What we might do is to start living in a more socialistic [or better, communistic] way. We should remind ourselves that socialist and, indeed, communist relationships are what have held humanity together despite the ravages of slavery, feudalism and, latterly, capitalism. So rather than ‘building’ socialism/communism, we recognise, name and extend the degree to which we are ‘living’ socialism/communism. And to get back to the points raised by Mhairi and Allan we can start by reexamining the way we relate to our own comrades, especially the ones we don’t immediately agree with.
    I expect by this stage some of those following this discussion are forming the impression that I am naive enough to imagine that capitalism is going to wither away in the face of our overwhelming niceness to each other. Of course not. Capitalism will be forced to yield to socialism/communism when our class is capable of acting as a class for itself with a vision of the future. My arguement is that the more we live that life in the here and now, the sooner our class will see itself as the class of the future.
    So we start talking and behaving as citizens, not subjects whether of a monarch, church, government or great leader. We assert there is no legitimacy in governments, trade union structures, managements [whether in the private or public sector, political parties composed of people not elected and/or not subject to recall by us.
    In short, we assert that we the people are sovereign.

  4. George Mackin says:

    Ian, yer so right. It is not just what we believe- it is also how we act to one another.Let’s raise a glass to manners, social grace and empathy – it has been sadly lacking at times within the Socialist Movement. As Bill Bonnar has oft observed to me – when someone calls you “comrade”, you really need to watch your back and brace yourself for a vicious verbal onslaught.

    Manners and social grace are not an extra add on but should be embedded, fostered and nurtured within the organisations where the Radical Left are involved. The SSP had its manifest faults(for another time) but it had a freer feeling than any other political parties I have been in. I know what I am taking about here, I have been in a few, he chortles to himself as he types. I am no longer a member.

    The young uns involved in new movements may have their weaknesses and blind-spots, however they are streets ahead on emotional intelligence; everybody should be encouraged to give voice to their opinions without being wilfully traduced, denigrated or ostracised as out-with the party line. The elitist, outdated, Democratic Centralism,with it’s priestly class leadership is an anathema to me.

    Yes Allan, The Calton Hill Declaration is one of the high-points of Scottish Political Culture and should be celebrated as such.

    Whilst welcoming the break up the of British State and the repeal of the hated Act Of Union, those on the radical left should not be cheer-leaders for the SNP and middle class nationalism which it has historically proven to be a fair-weather friend to working people.

    Good to see you guys are well and in the land of the living. It has been a hard few years, has it not. Yours Aye George M

  5. Raphie says:

    Mary and Allan make a very good assesmnet of went wrong in the SSP. It was far deeper than Sheridan. Think we have to look to wider forces and new layers of radicallising youth and adults for a new movement and make sure we are not tail ended into uncritical support for the SNP in the referendum.

  6. Emancipation & Liberation » Gregor Gall – Tommy Sheridan Biography Sources says:

    […] M. McGregor Mary McGregor reviews ‘Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story’, by Alan McCombes […]

  7. Vronsky says:

    Heard you speak at the RIC conference. Violently depressing. You need to watch this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=gb_qHP7VaZE

    “We need a politics that is open, democratic and where all party members are equal”

    Although some more equal than others, yeah?

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