‘Downfall – The Tommy Sheridan Story’ by Alan McCombes
The recently published book, Downfall – The Tommy Sheridan Story, has been lauded by sections of the Scottish media. But it’s only possible merit for socialistsis that it tangentially explains the reasons for the rise and fall of the Scottish Socialist Party by revealing the political retreat from socialist ideas of its author and former leading SSP figure, Alan McCombes.
Written by Alan McCombes, a founder and one-time chief strategist of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Downfall was written with the purported aim of clearing up “the mysteries of the Tommy Sheridan legal drama” and allowing “the Scottish socialist left to move on and recover the ground it has lost”. Instead, however, it is a completely one-sided, blatantly self-serving and distorted account of the events that engulfed the SSP from November 2004 on, leading eventually to its demise.
The book attempts to justify why the leadership of the SSP became the main prop by which the capitalist state machine, the sworn enemies of socialism and the working class, achieved the prosecution and jailing of Tommy Sheridan. “If Tommy was allowed to walk away untouched by justice”, McCombes writes, “he would be unstoppable. History would be rewritten to his script and the reputations of honourable people would be forever stained”. Any hypocritical moralising bourgeois journalist could have written this sentence. Unfortunately, there are many more of the same vein in Downfall.
The ‘honourable’ author of Downfall at one time played a leading role in the ranks of Militant in Scotland – the forerunner of the Socialist Party. Judging by the evidence of this book he has retained nothing of his political past. The book’s title, ‘Downfall’, is no accident. It is the same as the film about the last days of Hitler. And McCombes openly attempts to equate Tommy Sheridan and those who backed him against the Murdoch empire with fascism and dictatorship. “I had long understood”, he writes, “the social and economic conditions upon which people like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and a hundred other lesser dictators rose to power. But now, for the first time, I was beginning to get an insight into the politics of tyranny”.
How different is this from the right-wing journalists who smeared Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and other leading left figures in the past as ‘dictators’? This book, if it has any merit, is a warning of the consequences of abandoning a Marxist programme, methods and principles. It is in many respects a story of political infanticide; given that those who brought the SSP into life went on to engineer its destruction after only a few short years.
Crisis engulfs the SSP
The SSP was launched in 1998 and until November 2004 had made a significant impact on Scottish politics. In the 2003 Scottish parliament elections the SSP polled 128,000 votes, winning six MSP’s and 6.7% of the national vote. Today, only smouldering wreckage remains. The 2011 Scottish elections saw the party slump to just 8,200 votes (0.4%). From 3,000 members at its height the SSP today has only a handful of activists.
If this book were a serious attempt to draw out the lessons of the SSP’s collapse and to point a way forward it would at least have a purpose. The need for a powerful mass working class and socialist party in Scotland is more important today than ever. At a time of unprecedented crisis for the capitalist system, when millions are facing savage cuts to jobs, public services and welfare benefits, the absence of socialist and left political representation of a sizable or mass character is a major obstacle.
But instead the motivation for Downfall, aside from swelling the author’s bank account, is purely to justify the SSP leadership’s role in the jailing of Tommy Sheridan. As Alan McCombes boasts, the “vast majority” of witnesses who gave evidence in Tommy’s perjury trial were SSP members.
As is well known a major crisis erupted in the SSP in late 2004 over how to deal with tabloid stories about Tommy Sheridan. On 9 November 2004 a special executive committee (EC) meeting of the SSP took place to discuss the issue. Tommy Sheridan said he wanted to take legal action against the News of the World (NoW), which subsequently ran stories about his alleged sexual activities. The EC voted for him to resign if he decided to go ahead with legal action. The next day Tommy Sheridan resigned as SSP national convener and the party was thrown into turmoil and never recovered.
The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) platform of the SSP wrote at the time that “if the EC had not given Tommy Sheridan an immediate ultimatum to drop his denial and legal action and made it clear publicly that the right-wing tabloid allegations were an attempt to undermine the SSP and Tommy Sheridan, this situation could potentially have been avoided”.
It was one thing to consider whether or not to take legal action as a party, we wrote. “That issue, however, should not have immediately been linked to Tommy’s right to take such action or his position in the party. Of course, the personal conduct of a leading member of a political party can damage, sometimes severely, the reputation of that party. The tabloid allegations, completely unproven, made against Tommy Sheridan, do not fall into that category.
“These events have been a gift to a brutal anti-working class scandal sheet with a long track record of attempting to undermine socialists and trade unionists, including through the use of ‘sex scandals’. The crisis has been made worse by repeated statements from leading SSP members to the press that the party would not back Tommy Sheridan in his legal action against the NoW. There were also claims by leading EC members that he wanted the party to lie to protect him”.
All this, we argued, “has played into the hands of the capitalist media who have produced acres of newsprint over how the SSP has lost its best asset and is tearing itself apart over the issue. The EC carries significant responsibility for that situation developing in the way that it has”. (23 November 2004)
Seven years on we would not alter a single word of this statement. Despite our political differences with Tommy Sheridan, who left the ranks of the CWI in 2001 with Alan McCombes, we recognised this would do major damage to the SSP.
Tommy Sheridan was widely seen as the public figure through which the vast majority of working class people identified with the SSP. This was a result of his uncompromising stand against the poll tax, and as a politician who was seen as a fighter for the poor and working class. We called for a united front by the SSP against the NoW. For us the over-riding interest was to avoid a damaging fall-out that would undermine the SSP.
What a contrast to the approach of the McCombes grouping. “Damage limitation was the name of the game”, claims McCombes, yet within days they had embarked on a course that was to cause catastrophic damage to the SSP. In response to Tommy Sheridan’s determination to take legal action they orchestrated a campaign to ensure his defeat.
Rotten deal between News of the World and SSP members
By any means necessary
The lengths they were prepared to go are laid bare in Downfall. Two days after Tommy’s resignation McCombes met a Sunday Herald journalist, Paul Hutcheon, and confirmed that the SSP EC had discussed issues to do with Tommy’s personal life, and voted for him to resign. Effectively he was giving a green light to the Herald that the NoW stories were ‘true’. The following day he signed an affidavit at the Herald’s Glasgow offices confirming the information he had given.
At a press conference following Tommy’s resignation a reference was made to minutes of the EC meeting being “under lock and key”. It later became clear that these minutes reported Tommy Sheridan ‘admitting’ to attending a swingers’ club in Manchester. These were used as a key plank of the NoW’s defence alongside the SSP leaders’ own testimony during the 2006 defamation case and again at the perjury trial in 2010. There was widespread anger that such information could have been written down as ‘minutes’, kept, and their existence publicly declared to the press. The SSP leadership already knew that if a defamation case went ahead they would give evidence against Tommy Sheridan.
Throughout the book McCombes claims that he and the SSP leadership were motivated by the pursuit of a “fundamental morality” of “telling the truth”, and later of a “no-holds barred fight to the finish” against Tommy Sheridan. With this mindset all methods were justified to ‘save the party’. This included selling a video to the NoW, supposedly of Tommy Sheridan admitting to affairs and the swingers’ club visit, following the 2006 defamation victory.
There is not a word of criticism in Downfall about the deal done between Bob Bird, Scottish editor of the NoW, and SSP member George McNeilage, who recorded a tape, he claims, in November 2004. With a straight face Downfall describes how McNeilage gives Bob Bird a lecture about the crimes of News International and the Wapping dispute before asking for £200,000 from the same organisation that smashed the print workers in 1986.
McCombes says that when the video was made public by the NoW “the reaction of most of us was straightforward relief”. A perjury investigation by the Scottish Crown would now take place. The overwhelming majority of socialists in Scotland, however, and trade unionists and working class people generally, celebrated Tommy Sheridan’s win over Murdoch in 2006. This was a straight forward class response; a desire to see a socialist fighter triumph over the rich and powerful. Had the SSP leadership drawn back, even then, perhaps the SSP could have survived. But they chose a course of action that was to have catastrophic consequences.
The CWI did not agree with Tommy Sheridan that he should take a defamation case over these stories and we said so. The capitalist courts are not the best terrain for socialists to fight on, especially over issues of a personal character. But there was no question as to whose side we would be on if a court case did take place.
McCombes asks his critics, “what other course of action would you have taken?”. But that was already shown by the principled stand of a number of SSP members who did attend the November EC meeting. Rosemary Byrne, Graeme McIver, Jock Penman and Pat Smith all gave evidence in 2006 and 2010 that was unambiguous: at no time, they said, did Tommy Sheridan admit to visiting a swingers’ club in Manchester and the minutes of the meeting were therefore inaccurate. The NoW case in reality hinged on the evidence of the McCombes group and the disputed November ‘minutes’. They couldn’t believe their luck that the SSP leaders were prepared to side with them in this battle.
The tabloid snakes, with the toxic Murdoch brand at their head, live and breathe on ‘sex scandals’. Why should a responsible leadership of a socialist party offer up one of its own as a sacrifice? In the disturbed social and economic situation we are in today, with the re-emergence of class conflict and struggle on a wider scale, they will inevitably seek to undermine workers’ leaders and socialists with stories of a personal character. The phone-hacking conducted by News International’s papers, and probably most of the British tabloids, testify to this.
The actions of the SSP leadership in the Tommy Sheridan case only legitimise future ‘exposés’. Even if you believed every one of the stories written about Tommy Sheridan, and many are repeated tabloid-style in Downfall, he committed no crime against the interests of the working class. Tommy Sheridan’s political mistake was to break with the programme and ideas of the CWI and what is now the Socialist Party, and to encourage others to do the same. He has paid a heavy personal price for that, given the role played by his former comrades.
The central issue for socialists is to oppose everything that strengthens the hand of the capitalists and weakens the working class and its interests. In no sense can the jailing of Tommy Sheridan be seen as a step forward for the working class or for socialism.
Tommy Sheridan outside court
Role of the capitalist state
The twelve-week perjury trial in 2010 was the longest and most expensive of its kind in Scottish legal history. The number of witnesses named by the prosecution was greater than the Chilcott inquiry into the Iraq war. Over four years following his successful defamation case against the NoW in 2006 the police, the Scottish Crown and News International conducted a colossal campaign against Tommy Sheridan, his family and supporters. More than £4 million of public money was spent, involving more than 40,000 hours of police time. In addition millions in legal costs, and payments to prosecution witnesses, were invested by the NoW itself.
This was not done without reason. McCombes claims that “Tommy Sheridan was no longer a threat to the state” but the campaign against him was an unambiguous example of class revenge. As even Downfall grudgingly admits, Tommy was a key figure in the mass anti-poll tax movement that was instrumental in ending the Thatcher era. The ruling class don’t easily forget.
There are incredible efforts by McCombes to testify to the ‘even-handed’ nature of the Scottish legal system and the police. He claims that because the Scottish National Party (SNP) now ‘control’ the justice system and the Crown Office (which is not the case), it is not an instrument of the capitalist state for dispensing class justice. “The SNP backed the anti-poll tax campaign”, he asserts. Again this is not true as the SNP, in the main, did not support the mass non-payment strategy and certainly today would run a mile from such a campaign that ‘broke the law’. But anyway, McCombes writes, the leading figures in the Crown Office who triggered the perjury inquiry and the prosecution of Tommy Sheridan came from “the backstreets” and went to “state schools”!
It is a basic ABC of Marxism that the state machine, including the legal system, is overwhelming biased and in the last analysis exists to defend capitalist interests. That extends to a criminal justice system that is overwhelmingly weighted against women, the working class and the poor generally. The top echelons, the judges, the leading advocates etc, are trained, educated and in that sense handpicked to ensure the interests of capitalism are protected. Was not Tommy Sheridan jailed for defying a court order in 1992 during the anti-poll tax campaign? Were scores of miners not prosecuted in Scotland for defending their jobs and communities in the 1984-85 miners strike? Or are we to swallow the idea that since devolution and under the influence of the pro-capitalist SNP there now exists a benign legal system in Scotland?
Lothian and Borders police are also given the McCombes clean bill of health. “Since 2006 the strongest criticisms of Lothian and Borders police have come not from the left but from the right”. They never showed “any special prejudice” towards Tommy Sheridan before the perjury inquiry. Will McCombes stand by these statements as the police, the courts and state in Scotland are increasingly used against workers and communities fighting to defend their jobs, services and pensions in the future?
Scottish Militant Labour
Alan McCombes has travelled a long way from his political roots. At one time he was a leading member of Militant in Scotland – the forerunner to what is now the Socialist Party.
Militant emerged as the largest Marxist organisation in Britain in the 1980s. We led mass struggles including the Liverpool council battle of 1983 to 1987. We spearheaded the anti-poll tax movement, with millions of people refusing to pay, which was a key factor in the fall of the seemingly invincible Margaret Thatcher.
Scottish Militant Labour (SML) was the autonomous section of the British Militant organisation, set-up in 1992 following a lengthy debate in the Militant and the CWI over a proposal from the Militant leadership to establish a Scottish organisation outside the Labour Party. This marked a departure following many years of work in the Labour Party. By the early 1990s, however, Labour was well on the way to being transformed from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ – a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with democratic structures that allowed its working class base to fight for its interests – into an out-and-out party of capitalism. Under these conditions an open organisation in Scotland, given Militant’s leading role in the anti-poll tax struggle, offered the best strategy for building the forces of Marxism.
SML made a number of important gains in the early 1990s. Tommy Sheridan’s jailing in 1992 for defying a court order not to attend a mass demonstration to prevent a warrant sale by sheriff officers backfired spectacularly against the ruling class. From his prison cell he won 6,287 votes (19.3%) standing in Glasgow Pollok at the 1992 general election, coming second and defeating the SNP. A month later Tommy was elected to Glasgow council, shocking the Scottish political establishment. In the June 1994 European elections Tommy Sheridan, standing for SML in the all-Glasgow Euro-constituency, polled 12,113 votes (7.6%). This compares very well to the 18,581 votes (7.2%) he polled across Glasgow in 1999 when first elected to the Scottish parliament.
At least McCombes manages to mention his involvement in Militant and our role in the Liverpool and anti-poll tax struggles. However, he also finds it necessary to indulge in myth-making, distortions and cheap insults. He writes that the CWI is a “rigidly hierarchical organisation”, “dogmatic” and “intolerant”. It’s a wonder he stayed as a member of Militant for the 20 years that he did. Downfall is littered with such references, including accusations that the entire CWI is “London controlled”.
Surely the geographical location of the CWI’s international offices is a completely secondary question to its political programme and analysis? But McCombes’ criticisms about ‘London control’ are simply an example of his own nationalist political degeneration, reflected in an inability to debate ideas from a socialist and internationalist standpoint. He is left instead to resort to slurs.
In reality the CWI is scrupulously democratic. Full debate on policy, strategy and tactics, including differing views to that of the elected leadership, are encouraged through democratic discussion. The parties and groups that make up the CWI ensure full participation by members at all levels from the branches, to the national committees to the national congresses of the national sections that make up the CWI. This can take the form of debate and discussion as well as resolutions, documents and even the right to form factions – organised groupings to advocate a specific policy for the party or international. Once a position is decided at a congress the party then unites to carry out that policy – while upholding the right of all members to continue to argue for a change in policy or approach.
Each national section of the CWI has its own democratic structures and elected leadership which is responsible for developing its perspectives, policy, strategy and tactics as they apply to their specific countries. The CWI as an international has the right and duty to discuss the work of the national sections, just as the national sections also are encouraged to discuss the work of their sister sections and those of the CWI as a whole. In that way we learn from each other and strengthen the overall experience of the CWI as a whole.
The idea of an “intolerance of dissent” is laughable when you consider the almost three years of debate and voluminous written exchanges that took place between the CWI and leaders of the SSP before they left the CWI in 2001. The documents which formed ‘the Scottish debate’ are available at http://www.marxist.net/scotland/index.html
Building new mass workers’ parties
This example of the debate that took place over the launch of the SSP completely counters McCombes’ claim that the CWI is intolerant of dissent. Downfall only touches briefly on the differences that arose between the grouping that went on to become the leadership of the SSP and the CWI leadership.
In early 1998 Alan McCombes wrote a document agreed by the SML executive committee called ‘Initial proposals for a new Scottish Socialist Party’. In essence it was a proposal to dissolve SML by transferring all the full timers, offices and equipment to a new SSP and to wind-up the cohesive revolutionary organisation that had been built in Scotland over decades of work.
Not surprisingly the overwhelming majority of the leadership and the national sections of the CWI opposed this. The CWI leadership proposed instead two possible alternatives. Option one was to relaunch SML as a Marxist SSP affiliated to the CWI; and option two was to support the creation of the SSP as a broad socialist party but also to maintain an organised and well-resourced Marxist force within it. After six months of debate the majority of SML voted to go ahead with launching the SSP while effectively dissolving themselves into the broader party.
McCombes claims that this debate was tantamount to the CWI leaders “moving to crush the rebellious Scots”. In fact the 1998 CWI world congress, while putting on record its belief that the proposals put forward by the SML EC for the organisation of CWI members in Scotland were inadequate “for the functioning of a cohesive revolutionary organisation”, continued to recognise the CWI group in the SSP as a full section.
No expulsion or threats of expulsion, no “venom and fury” from the CWI, as Downfall claims. Instead a commitment to continue the discussions around the fundamental political issues that surrounded the Scottish debate. The CWI leadership were confident that over time and through experience the majority of CWI members in Scotland would be convinced of the need to build a revolutionary organisation within the SSP.
The 1990s was a difficult and complex time socialists internationally. The ideological triumph of capitalism after the collapse of Stalinism had a profound impact on workers’ consciousness and their organisations. The transformation of former workers’ parties into capitalist formations – from Labour to New Labour in Britain – was a product of this era. It was clear to the CWI that this process necessitated the building of new mass workers’ parties and encouraging all genuine steps in this direction, while also continuing to build distinct and cohesive Marxist organisations.
CWI sections have and are participating in a number of new left formations internationally in an effort to help build political representation for workers and young people. Despite the claims in Downfall the CWI supported the setting up of the SSP. But we insisted on continuing with building a clearly identified Marxist trend within the SSP. In contrast Alan McCombes and the other SSP leaders had drawn the conclusion that this was outmoded and historically redundant. That was the fundamental point of difference during the debate.
Alan McCombes and the other SSP leaders, including Tommy Sheridan, by this time an MSP, left the CWI in January 2001. Following the split the Scottish section of the CWI – then a platform in the SSP, now called Socialist Party Scotland – found ourselves in opposition to the political backsliding of the SSP leadership, who were moving rapidly away from the ideas they once stood for. This was reflected in key debates that took place over the political programme and direction that the SSP should take.
One example was Alan McCombes’ draft of the SSP’s European manifesto for the 2004 elections. Omitting any reference to the need for public ownership of the multinational corporations that control the Scottish and European economies, the manifesto said the aim of the SSP was to build a ‘social Europe’, rather than a socialist Europe.
What this meant was shown by the manifesto highlighting the examples of Denmark and Norway as models for how an independent Scotland could operate. Denmark has “some of the most impressive public services in the world”, it claimed. This was no more than support for a 1960s-type Scandinavian social democratic model for capitalism, with a socialist Scotland pushed off into the distant future. Against the backdrop of the crisis engulfing Europe, with Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland facing economic collapse, mass movements, and the possible break-up of the Eurozone, how inadequate does the SSP’s 2004 manifesto seem today?
Similarly over the national question in Scotland there was an increasing turn to reformist, left nationalist ideas. McCombes argues that he worked “to gradually push SML from 1995 onwards towards a more clear-cut pro-independence stance”, which the CWI leadership only supported, he claims, through “gritted teeth”.
Militant and the CWI have always taken a sensitive and principled position on the national question. We base our approach on the analysis made by Marxists, including Lenin and Trotsky, who fought for a policy that advocated the right for nations and minorities to self-determination, up to and including the right of independence. They argued against outstanding revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg who felt this was a concession to nationalism. At the same time they stood implacably for the unity of the working class regardless of nationality or religion. This was summed up in the idea of a voluntary and democratic socialist federation of states.
Militant supported a Yes vote in the 1979 devolution referendum, while also explaining the limits of the devolved assembly and calling for public ownership and democratic working class control and management of the economy. We called for unity of the Scottish, English and Welsh working class and, while supporting Scotland’s right of self-determination, put forward the slogan of a Socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland.
As the moods and consciousness of the working class has developed, so the CWI’s programme has evolved. By the late 1990s the idea of independence for Scotland had the support of around 30-40% of the Scottish people. In particular a majority of youth and a significant section of the working class supported independence. For many this was intimately linked to finding a solution to poverty and the inequalities under capitalism. In other words it was a class outlook, wrapped up in a national consciousness.
It was to take account of this change in consciousness that, in 1998, the SML conference voted to update our programme on the national question and support an independent socialist Scotland, which would link up with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland in a socialist confederation or alliance. But this was fully backed by the CWI international leadership – no teeth were ground. The change was an attempt to reach those workers and young people who looked to Scottish independence as a solution with socialist ideas.
However, after breaking from the CWI the SSP leaders increasingly dropped the ‘socialist’ prefix to promote the benefits of capitalist independence. By 2003 Alan McCombes was arguing that a central task for the SSP was to campaign to “break apart the UK” and advocated the creation of an “independence convention”. The SSP MSPs put an amendment to parliament that argued “the problem of poverty will never be solved until there is a fundamental redistribution of income and wealth which requires an independent Scotland” (September 2003). We countered that by omitting any reference to socialism this could only sow illusions that independence on a capitalist basis would be a solution to the problems facing working class communities in Scotland.
By the time the November 2004 crisis erupted the SSP leadership were in headlong retreat from the ideas and principles they once defended. Disarmed politically they capitulated in the most abject manner when the Murdoch press came calling for the SSP’s leading figure.
The task of re-building a fighting left and socialist alternative is already under way and will grow in the months and years ahead. Socialist Party Scotland, who are playing a leading role in the anti-cuts movement, are calling for a widespread anti-cuts challenge for next year’s Scottish local government elections, of candidates prepared to stand on a platform of no cuts, support for workers and communities opposing cuts, and for the setting of needs budgets. But what role will be played by Alan McCombes, after his part in reducing the SSP to a rump?
Perhaps the last page of Downfall is the most significant. McCombes admits to having “voluntarily stepped down from the frontline to make way for a new generation”. No longer active in socialist struggle and seemingly prepared to make his peace with capitalism, McCombes’ future lies elsewhere as a “freelance writer and journalist”. Downfall is his cynical and self-serving parting shot.