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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