Personality crisis

The Scottish Socialist Party appears to be on the brink of a potentially devastating split between, on the one hand, the supporters of the party's former convenor and most prominent figure, Tommy Sheridan, and, on the other, the leadership majority around the SSP's main theoretician, policy and press coordinator Alan McCombes. Peter Manson reports

Tensions were ratcheted up on May 15 when four senior SSP figures - current national convenor Colin Fox, press officer Eddie Truman, Frances Curran MSP and comrade McCombes - were summoned before a commission of the Edinburgh court of session after being served with subpoenas by News International, publishers of the News of the World. The Sunday gutter rag is defending a libel case against comrade Sheridan following publication in November 2004 of details of his alleged sexual liaisons. News International is demanding the release of minutes of the November 9 SSP executive meeting of that year and other documents relating to discussions around that time.

Comrade Truman was excused from answering questions on medical grounds, while comrades Curran and Fox stated that they did not have the documents in question and that the only set was in the possession of Alan McCombes. This was confirmed by the comrade, who told the commission that they contained records of private, confidential discussions and he was not prepared to release them. He was warned that he faced the possibility of imprisonment for contempt until he complied with the demand.

The commissioner adjourned the hearing to allow comrade McCombes to reconsider his decision - the court had already ruled that the records News International are seeking must be handed over. The party has called a meeting of its national council for May 28, when there will be moves to overturn a previous NC decision that the minutes of three EC meetings in November 2004 are confidential and should remain unpublished.

There have been strong demands from elements within the SSP that a symbolic burning of the bridges between the SSP and Tommy as its personification should now take place. The anti-Sheridan wing, particularly the ultra-nationalists around Truman and Scottish Socialist Voice columnist Kevin Williamson, are calling for comrade Sheridan not only to be left to his own devices in the libel case, but for disciplinary action to be taken against him for allowing SSP leaders to be hauled before the courts and threatened with jail.

According to a large section of the membership, he should never have taken legal action against the News of the World in the first place. Why should the party worry about releasing information that News International believes will damage his libel prospects? Back in 2004, the EC had offered comrade Sheridan two options: either issue a statement revealing the whole truth regarding allegations about his private life; or simply inform the press that he was refusing to comment on such matters, which concerned himself, his family and associates only, and were none of the media's business.

It was when comrade Sheridan insisted on his right to initiate legal proceedings against the News of the World that he was forced to resign as convenor. A statement was issued claiming, rather absurdly, that he had resigned in order to "spend more time with his family". But this forced resignation did not result from "petty moralising" or the EC swallowing "bourgeois morality hook, line and sinker", as Weekly Worker correspon-dent Jonathan Drake wrote at the time (November 18 2004). While some EC members certainly regarded comrade Sheridan's alleged sexual adventures with distaste, their main concern was to nip the anti-Sheridan and anti-SSP media campaign in the bud.

There was also an unsuccessful attempt by the leadership majority around McCombes to prevent Sheridan from being elected as co-chair of the SSP at its conference on March 4-5 2006.

But now News International, according to the terms of its citation against the four SSP leaders, claims its right to know, among other things, if at the November 9 2004 EC "there was discussion of whether the pursuer should continue as convenor of the SSP"; if "members of the SSP discussed whether or not to support the pursuer in claims that the terms of the article published by the defender on November 14 2004 were untrue and decided not to do so"; and if "at the said meeting the members so decided because they considered the pursuer to be lying".

Lawyers for both the SSP and comrade Sheridan opposed the issuing of the citations and the release of the documents. Simultaneously, the SSP called upon Sheridan to drop the case and the executive will now be calling on the May 28 NC to endorse the following motion, unanimously passed at its May 14 emergency EC: "As Tommy Sheridan's court action has negatively impacted on the party, its MSPs and office-bearers, the executive committee calls on Tommy Sheridan to withdraw from the court action."

On the face of it this motion seems rather pointless - the party has been calling on comrade Sheridan to drop his action against the News of the World for the past 18 months (without success, obviously). Indeed, I understand that comrade McCombes recently met with him and offered to launch a 'Sheridan appeal' to help cover legal fees so far incurred if he would just agree to cut his losses and pull out.

It could be that the passing of this motion is viewed as the first stage in some kind of disciplinary action against the comrade. That would explain why Sheridan's supporters are mobilising to defend him. His own Cardonald branch has passed a motion condemning the EC move in the strongest possible terms and talks of an "ongoing political witch-hunt against comrade Sheridan, which is clearly designed to drive him out of the party he has helped so much to build". The party should concentrate on "fighting against war, poverty and grotesque inequality" rather than countenance "investigations of comrades' private lives" and what it calls a "personal and spiteful vendetta against comrade Sheridan".

The Cardonald motion states that no socialist party worthy of the name should "cooperate with the high court at the behest of the scab News of the World". It continues: "This branch defends the right of individuals to fight against the lies and slander peddled by the most racist, reactionary and anti-trade union newspaper in the world. And believes every socialist who confronts this rag in court is deserving of support from other socialists, as a defeat for the News of the World is a victory for the working class and their inalienable right to have a personal and a private life."

The branch concludes by demanding that any "minutes involving comrade Sheridan and his private life, if such a record does indeed exist, should be immediately destroyed". If the SSP were to agree to that, its officers would, of course, be held to be in the clearest contempt and, in the absence of any mass working class mobilisation, have to suffer the consequences.

No doubt the leadership would argue that allowing comrade McCombes or national secretary Allan Green to be banged up is not the best way of protecting comrade Sheridan's "inalienable right to have a personal and a private life".

Unfortunately the party is now reaping what it sowed when it went along with the 'personality cult' that was built up around Tommy in the past. Worse, its headlong rush into the dead end of nationalism has inevitably reduced its ability to uphold a principled working class morality.