The fall of an icon
David Douglass reviews Gregor Gall's 'Tommy Sheridan, from hero to zero: a political biography', Welsh Academic Press, 2012, pp384,
Given the still raw emotions, ongoing political bitterness and entrenched sectarian positions around Tommy Sheridan, this is a remarkably objective and balanced work. It is also extremely well written and presented.
The forces that would come to be centred on this rising star and his almost archetypal west Scottish working class persona could perhaps never have developed at all, had it not been for an ideological shift in perceptions towards the independence process by far-left groupings north of the border. This is, of course, a vexed question, however, and this review is not the place to restage the contesting positions.
Tommy’s roots and political apprenticeship had been with the Militant Tendency, which developed his emerging talent for public speaking. Before the poll tax campaign - which really put Tommy in the right place with the right skills at just the right time - were a number of disputes, strikes and protests, which fine-tuned his talents for organisation, leadership and oratory. The poll tax gave rise to a truly mass community resistance movement of non-payment in the solid working class communities, and in 1990 there were huge demonstrations, with 40,000 marching in Glasgow and 200,000 in London.
It was the London demonstration rather than the mass community resistance which became the enduring memory of the campaign. Pitched battles raged in the centre of London - probably even more ferocious than anything the miners’ strike of five years earlier had involved. It was following this demonstration that Tommy became notorious for his condemnation of protestors’ violence and the implication that he would ‘name names’ - earning him the undying title of ‘grass’ among the anarchist left. Unhindered by such trifles in his Scottish base, he had become more and more publicly associated with resistance to warrant sales and bailiff actions and it was during this time that he was drawn towards left nationalism, and some of the people who would become his most reliable comrades.
Tommy’s high media profile and identity with Militant had soon marked him out for expulsion from the Labour Party. He was expelled in October 1989 - all members of the large Pollock constituency party were suspended. The general witch-hunt and widespread expulsion of Militant leaders from Labour, together with general unease with the whole clandestine entrist tactic, led to the break from the party and the establishment of Militant Labour - later to become the Socialist Party (in England and Wales).
Tommy’s star was rising. He was tireless and dynamic, a working class ‘man of the people’ filled with passion and charisma; instantly recognisable - groomed, tanned, always ‘on’. Having been jailed for ‘deforcement’ and breach of the peace, as well as contravening the terms of an interdict, he had used in classic style the court as a platform for class denunciation of the ‘war on the poor’.
In 1992 Sheridan stood twice for election while still in prison. In the April general election he came second to Labour, winning 19% of the votes cast (6,287) - on a platform that “Labour used to campaign on before its heart and soul were ripped out”. The following month he achieved a first by winning Pollok ward from his prison cell and becoming a Glasgow councillor.
In 1995 Alan McCombes, Tommy’s close friend and comrade, floated the idea of a Scottish Socialist Alliance, which would bring together all the existing socialist groups and be able to contest the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections. They also appealed to the Communist Party, Labour left and even the Liberation group of the Scottish National Party. It is perhaps telling that this initiative came about because of the monolithic centralism of Arthur Scargill and his newly formed Socialist Labour Party. The emergent SLP had been seen as a catalyst which could act as a serious political pole to the left of the right-moving New Labour project. For a brief moment the SLP looked as though it might actually achieve something lasting and important, but it was not to be: it was conceived in the image of Scargill, and factions, rank-and-file control and democracy were not part of that image.
Tommy had brought SML and many others to the table, but Scargill refused any idea of an autonomous Scottish section, self-determination for Scotland or recognition of political factions within the SLP. Tommy had commented: “When Scargill threw down the gauntlet of a new socialist Labour Party we were excited. We wore Scottish socialist spectacles, but we took them off to see the broader picture and were keen to be involved with Arthur.” It was in Tommy’s words a “lost opportunity” - and not just for the Scottish working class.
But Scargill’s bureaucratic myopicism led to the foundation of the SSA, which in turn led to the creation of the Scottish Socialist Party. Had the SLP not been so afflicted, its Scottish section would have boasted a united platform, with Tommy at its head. Maybe it would have also kept Tommy’s feet more firmly on the ground. The total of 101,867 votes for the SLP and SSP in the 1999 Scottish parliamentary election ought to have produced two more MSPs in addition to Tommy.
The decision of SML to more or less wind up and transfer its resources over to the SSA was a bold and principled move, and marked for a time a healthy alternative to the SLP, already fully operating its regime of witch-hunts and membership ‘voiding’.
Tommy’s significance to the SSA was that he was a well known public figurehead, around which much of the Scottish left could unite in the same manner as the left might have been able to rally around Arthur Britain-wide. The SSA resolved that its candidates would not stand against other socialists or in marginal seats against Labour, where they could allow in the Tory. From the word ‘go’ it would recognise political tendencies and factions. The Scottish Socialist Alliance was formally launched on April 20 1996, with The Scotsman predicting that “such a rainbow coalition could dissolve in the sunlight”.
1999-2003 marked a great revival of radical socialist politics and growth in Scotland; it began with the election of Sheridan and concluded with him being joined by another five other Scottish Socialist Party MSPs. Election results and MSPs are not the only criteria of judgment, of course, but on any other yardstick too this period marked a high tide, and Tommy was central within it. He fully came of age when he was elected to the Scottish parliament. The iconic image which went across Scotland was of Tommy, fist clenched, taking the oath of allegiance under protest and duress.
Tommy saw himself as the mouthpiece of the movement. He used parliament to raise questions on particular strikes, and even the wages of parliamentary workers, and was a welcome guest at innumerable strike rallies and picket lines - often in the teeth of hostility from the union leadership.
The attitude of the press to Tommy started to sour around 2000 with his further arrest at Faslane during anti-Trident protests - the Daily Record labelled him “pillock no1” and first coined the phrase “working class zero” in relation to the SSP policy for the legalisation of cannabis. It was around this time too that the press started to dub him the “sun-tanned designer MSP”. He was, though, still writing articles for The Sunday Times, the Record and Evening Times, as well as for the Morning Star.
But it was becoming clear Tommy liked being centre stage. According to Felicity Garvie, Sheridan’s parliamentary office manager from 1999-2006 and a member of the SSP executive, “A fundamental weakness is that he is not a team player … when the other five were elected, I think it was a severe dent to his personal profile and position as leader of the party - the only SSP MSP and so on. You can call it personal pride or vanity, but I think he enjoyed being in that position” (p140).
Where did it all go wrong? It was a question of personal morality, tactics and judgment of principle. Tommy won a spectacular victory against the News of the World and News International for defamation in 2006, and probably became the most famous Scot in the world after Sean Connery. The whole ‘Tommygate’ affair ran from November 2004 to January 2011, ending with the demise of the champion of the underdog and the collapse of the SSP.
Essentially the NOTW had ‘exposed’ Tommy’s attendance at sex clubs - something he swore had not happened. He decided to play a huge game of bluff in the courts, believing “they’ve got fuck all on me” in the way of hard evidence. He had a choice - either face it down (‘So what? That’s my business’ being one possible response. This was a private matter for himself and his partner to sort out) or go for broke. And, because he believed the revelations, left unchallenged, would destroy him, he went for option two.
The biggest flaw in this strategy was that it was not just himself who stood to be broke if someone called his bluff or broke ranks. He obviously had not been alone in the ‘swingers’ clubs - loads of other punters had been there, people who recognised him and saw him on more than one occasion. The EC of the SSP, as soon the accusations surface, calls a special meeting to discuss the crisis on November 9 2004. Since members of the EC know he is a regular attender at the Cupids club in Manchester, he comes clean and owns up to them, while announcing his belief that the NOTW has no evidence and they will settle at the door of the court. Very reluctantly the EC goes along with this and agrees to stay shtum, on the grounds that Tommy resigns his post as SSP convenor for “personal reasons”. The meeting is, of course, minuted.
In late 2001 Tommy had attended Cupids with a freelance journalist, who went on to try and sell what looked like an ace scoop. News of this got back to the EC and Alan McCombes confronted him over it. Although at first he denied it, he later confirmed within the organisation that it was true. Stories also started to circulate about an orgy at the Moat House Hotel in Glasgow.
The advice of the NEC was to admit it and fight the attacks on him as a private matter rather than an issue of personal morality. Tommy disagreed, but 21 members of the SSP EC had attended the four-hour meeting, where he recited all the facts. Then there was George McNeilage, who just for the record makes a secret tape of what is essentially a confession. When the full minutes were written up they read:
“… The meeting began with an introduction by Tommy Sheridan, He responded to a recent article in the News of the World which alleged a married MSP had visited a swingers/sex club in Manchester in company of a female journalist who had now written a book about her lifestyle. Tommy admitted to the meeting that he had in fact visited the club on two occasions, in 1996 and 2002, with close friends … He reported that he had met with Keith B and Alan Mc and asked them for the opportunity to fight this on his own and for other party members if questioned about it to either give no comment or refer all questions to himself. He said he was confident there was no proof in existence he had visited the club, Tommy said he was not prepared to resign as convenor unless proof was revealed to exist. His strategy was to deny the allegations and in this regard he had already taken advice from NUJ solicitors …”
The minutes record without exception (other than Tommy, who left the meeting before any votes were taken) that all contributors disagreed with the strategy of denying the allegations: “All felt this would be most damaging for the party... All agreed it would be better if Tommy changed his mind about denying the allegations.”
Tommy then resigns as convenor of the party after further deputations from the EC failed to persuade him against fighting a defamation action. In a press statement the SSP comments: “We understand that recent allegations in a Murdoch newspaper may be the subject of a future libel action by Tommy Sheridan and consequently the Scottish Socialist Party does not wish to comment on matters concerning the allegation.” Tommy requests that the minutes of the EC meeting at which he admits the visits should not be distributed. This was agreed.
From here on in Tommy begins to play out the perfectly aggrieved and outraged innocent, fighting the anti-union, anti-socialist press monolith. The subterfuge could never be publicly admitted despite it being almost widespread knowledge within the SSP. What also clearly starts to happen is Tommy and later his supporters get so deeply into the role that they clearly forget they are playing a bluff and that the allegations are actually true. As things turned out, regardless of Sheridan’s victory in the defamation action, the SSP was split. Many thought it unprincipled in the extreme to risk the political reputation of the organisation to effectively save the political skin of one its MSPs. The majority of the EC decided to tell the truth when forced by the NOTW to give evidence.
The author comments: “It seems Tommy subscribed to the principle that the truth is what you make it and that one of the spoils of victory is to write its history” (p173). Many individuals as well as parts of the organised left gave legitimacy to Tommy’s methods - including the distortions, lies and character assassination employed against those who would not play the game. He believed that if he dropped the court case, his guilt and misjudgement would be established and he would have no chance of coming back to lead the party and regain his old stardom. So he determined to prove that black was white and those who said otherwise were traitors.
But first he had a lot of knitting to undo - not least because he had told a whole room of people at the November 9 2004 EC that he had visited Cupids and then resigned because of that admission. He even claimed that the EC minutes, which the SSP had agreed to withhold from the NOTW, had been fake. McCombes, who had strongly advised Tommy against his course of action, was actually jailed for contempt for refusing to hand over the minutes, but this did not save him from the designation of traitor by Tommy and his supporters.
In numerous TV, radio and press interviews he did indeed argue that black was white. In order to do this he was forced to charge all his former comrades who had decided to tell the truth with conspiring with the NOTW and the state against him. “In the 2006 case, Tommy constructed the fabrication that the 11 SSP members [who gave evidence against him] were guilty of ‘the mother of all stitch-ups’ against him and of perjuring themselves in court to do so.” Meantime the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales condemned the SSP for forcing Tommy to resign as convenor before the case.
The News of the World did not, however, cave in, as Tommy had expected, claiming that its story was “substantially true”. So the defamation case started in Edinburgh Court of Session on July 4 2006 and ended after 23 days on August 4. Tommy was suing for £200,000. His rationale was that the case was not about truth or lies, but what could and could not be proved. His strategy was not so much to cast doubt on the evidence, but on the process by which the evidence was accumulated and upon the character of the witnesses. The trial saw News International call 24 witnesses, including the 11 SSP EC members who had attended the November 2004 ‘admission’ meeting. Among them were some who had been Tommy’s closest comrades and friends. It is perhaps worth reminding readers, in light of the accusations of ‘grass’ and ‘scab’, that all of them were there against their will: they could not legally refuse to be indicted and once on the stand under oath, their options were either to lie and perjure themselves, and so risk legal sanction and other consequences, or simply tell the truth. That they were in that position was entirely due to Tommy’s ill-advised choice of action rather than their own universal view to let the charge ride and face it down as an attack on his private life.
Calling his own wife, Gail, to the stand to give evidence on his behalf was a master stroke: “What is clear is that Gail played a key and starring - almost theatrical - role, when cross-examined by Tommy … saying with tears that if the allegations were true ‘You would be in the … Clyde with a piece of concrete tied around you and I would be in court for your murder’” (p182). He was also supported by Steve Arnott of the Highlands and Islands Branch SSP; he suggested that it had been “mass delusion” which had caused 11 fellow EC members to recollect Tommy admitting the Cupids visits.
The media reported Tommy’s 85-minute submission as “spellbinding” and “barnstorming”. One said it was “the best speech of his career”. After 160 minutes of deliberation the jury found seven to four in favour of Tommy and awarded him the maximum damages of £200,000. The author speculates, soundly in my view, as to whether the jury actually believed Tommy or just did not want him to lose at the hands of the hated News of the World.
Having won an outstanding victory (and pulled off what was effectively a massive con), perhaps he would then try to repair the damage done to the party he had previously given so much to? Not at all. Instead he negotiates an exclusive deal with NOTW’s main rival, the Daily Record, for £20,000 plus expenses. His story is serialised day by day for a week. Gregor Gall comments that Tommy seemed to forget the relish the paper would have “in printing stories which helped further undermine the SSP” (p186). In the process he continues to attack the SSP EC as scabs, perjurers and collaborators with the enemy. This nailed any hope of ever reconciling the organisational division.
Worse, having being so accused, those reluctant witnesses for the NOTW now had a vested interest in clearing their names and reputations and went onto the counteroffensive. Barbara Scott, the EC’s minute-taker, hands over to Lothian and Borders police her hand-written original minutes of the November 2004 meeting. This sets in chain a perjury enquiry and the NOTW, which now also had access to George McNeilage’s video recording of Tommy admitting to his attendance at sex parties, smells revenge. The whole mess is thrown back into the public arena. Tommy was charged with perjury on December 16 2007.
He had by then set up a new political grouping, Solidarity. It too was based on no more than the desire to turn an elaborate lie into the truth: Tommy is an honest advocate of principle, while the SSP is full of traitors and grasses. Solidarity’s reaction was that this was all “a colossal vendetta by the Rupert Murdoch empire … which is rooted in [Tommy’s] role of leader of the anti-poll tax movement”. His hope was that only he of the six SSP MSPs would be returned to the Scottish parliament following the scandal and split. Thus he and Solidarity would now be able to claim the SSP’s former mantle and start to retake its ground. In reality that election night in 2007 saw all vestiges of radical socialist presence wiped out. The combined SSP-Solidarity vote only achieved a third of what the SSP had polled in 2003. But Tommy claimed the vote had not been affected by either the court case or the split.
When in November 2009 Tommy stands for the Glasgow North Westminster by-election, he is fifth, beaten even by the British National Party - the least ‘Scottish’ and least ‘socialist’ party standing - and he loses his deposit. His vote in the June 2009 European election, where he runs on the No2EU ticket, is worse - he does not hit 1%. Later calls for both Solidarity and SSP to cooperate within a Scottish version of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition were always going to fall on deaf ears, given the bad blood.
The perjury case begins at the end of 2010. After six hours of deliberation on December 23 the jury found Tommy guilty of wilfully and knowingly making false statements under oath. It judged him to be the MSP in the News of the World story of October 2004, that he had visited Cupids, had admitted this to the SSP EC and had had sexual relations with Katrine Trolle - another NOTW allegation he had denied. The split decision of eight against six shows he nearly - just nearly - pulled it off again, one might say regardless of the evidence (the author calls his case “thin and threadbare”).
Despite the verdict Tommy acknowledged nothing, admitted nothing. He remained defiant, claiming that his downfall was related to the News International phone-hacking scandal in some unspecified way.
The book is minutely researched and, given its scope, decidedly easy to read and follow. However, if I have any criticism it would be of the chapter on Tommy’s alleged sexual predilection (beginning roughly on p264). From a discussion of facts and real events, suddenly we are catapulted into a priori reasoning based upon highly dubious value judgments about what is and what is not acceptable sexual morality.
I should clarify perhaps that I am not talking here of the criticism of Tommy’s disastrous sex club visits and semi-public orgies, nor his absurd decision to turn reality on its head by denying them. These are disastrous from a political point of view, given his position in the movement. No, those criticisms are well made and I would agree with them.
Rather this chapter goes beyond political considerations. It contains massively patronising assumptions about the ability of “young women” - or rather their inability - to decide for themselves whether they engage in sexual activity and with whom. Consent is not actual consent because of Tommy’s apparent “authority” and “power” over them. Tommy is asked by one of the comrades after a one-night stand with a young (consensual ) member, “What are your expectations here?” Eh? Tommy might well have answered, ‘What the fuck has that got to do with you?’ and he would have been right. The idea that a brief sexual encounter requires some ongoing commitment or ‘meaningful relationship’ is just so much bourgeois moralist shite.
Similarly the use of the prefix “vulnerable” before “women” at once renders the woman childlike: a victim, unable to actually know what she is actually consenting to. What is it that makes her “vulnerable”? It seems simply her youth - there is no need for any evidence. In other words, a social workers’ charter to interfere in everyone’s lives on the basis of their own, very narrow judgmental yardstick. “Vulnerable” applies to anyone doing something our betters think they should not do.
SSP Glasgow organiser Richie Venton is given reign to ‘out’ Tommy’s sexual practices and offer a psychological analysis of the man with no authority other than this is what he thinks: that is, it is nothing more than his own (probably very jealous, hypocritical and moralising) opinion. This then becomes a springboard for a whole construct of historical patterns and sexual behavioural dysfunction - again with nothing more than the a priori social-worker reasoning mentioned earlier. Tommy’s assertion that “sex was a form of recreation” is quoted as some huge admission of guilt. It is a quote I suspect most of us would have subscribed to in happier moments of our lives - and why not? Many of Tommy’s sexual exploits detailed in the chapter on the subject could be those of almost any young working class lad.
Behind this reasoning is the sort of rationale which takes as its starting point that heterosexuality is basically a ‘bloke thing’, that it is essentially exploitative by its very nature. The reactionary bourgeois feminist notion that men are the enemy and heterosex is something women are subjected to. Men flaunting their sexuality in the way Tommy had ought never under these criteria to be accepted, as would, say, homosexual men behaving in the same way. This chapter is by far the weakest in the whole book and represents a sharp diversion from the rest of the exposition; it would have been far stronger without it. But I mention that very much as an irritating aside which does not in any way characterise the book as a whole.
Tommy’s contribution to the development of a new wave of radical socialist organisation and aspiration in Scotland is beyond question. He was a somebody in the fight for socialism; his work on the streets, on the picket line and in organising a mass fightback was invaluable. He took parliament seriously and was a highly effective parliamentarian. He was also a champion organiser and party-builder, especially between 1999 and 2003.
What makes this whole story a tragedy is that all of this was brought to a crashing end by Tommy’s own catastrophic errors of judgment - one has to ask if his grip on reality slipped to the point where he no longer knew fact from fiction. Tommy’s impact on the working class struggle is called into question by the extent to which we think his latter failings destroyed his early positive contribution - a question often asked in relation to Arthur Scargill (and indeed, on a rather grander scale, in relation to the Soviet Union). Has the damage done during their degeneration made the overall situation for our class worse now than it would have been without them? Such is pure speculation and history cannot be wound back and replayed.
Tommy Sheridan gambled away his most precious achievements - his name, his credibility, the trust and respect of large swathes of the Scottish working class. The crazy thing is that none of the subsequent loss was due actually to his sexual behaviour: it was all down to the very public elaboration of a huge lie. He was jailed not for being a red or because of his sexual appetite, but for being a liar and a fabricator; in the court of public opinion he was convicted of being a hypocrite.
What sparked his bizarre road to destruction? One can only conclude it was his vanity and love of power and the limelight, and a fear of being confronted with a reality of himself which did not fit the carefully manufactured public image that he - and the SSP leadership - had worked so long to create. Tommy is still a highly public figure and still wishes to make a contribution, it seems. But one feels that without a totally public and honest, critical assessment of past mistakes, facing up to the disastrous road of falsehood and distortion he embarked upon in order to save his political skin, that contribution will be permanently crippled. It is in recognition of the need to assess the past in order to move forward that the old communist principle of self-criticism still holds good.
But the evidence seems to suggest that, rather than confront the past and come clean in order to make an honest reassessment of his life and move forward, he still persists with the lie. In the wake of the NOTW scandal Tommy’s phone was found to have been hacked too. Undoubtedly this was more to do with the racket to expose celebs’ private sexual lives in order to sell newspapers than a political conspiracy to frame a socialist activist. That the NOTW hated Tommy’s politics is beyond doubt; that this made any difference whatever to the unrolling of events is, however, highly unlikely. It was Tommy’s refusal to listen to the sound advice of comrades and friends which was the cause of his downfall, not any actions by the NOTW or sections of the state out to get him. That Tommy’s supporters and he himself have clutched at this straw of new evidence against the NOTW is proof that they still do not get it and as such will be unable to move on. Prospects for re-uniting the two SSP and Solidarity factions are nil, but frankly even if they come back together it is now too late to regain the SSP’s earlier reputation and standing in the class. Both are now like deflated balloons, abandoned after a wedding from which the guests have all departed.
There are sadly other comparisons one could draw with this case - not only Scargill, but Derek Hatton comes to mind - where there has been a tendency by a shrinking band of followers to say ‘My leader, right or wrong’ and to forgive or excuse even the biggest deviation from socialist practice and honesty in some misguided ‘loyalty’ that conflates the leader with the cause. There is a sound anarchist slogan, ‘Too many chiefs, not enough anarchists’ - in fact in the case of the SSP and SML mass involvement, mass leadership and mass democracy were not practised. A small, tightly knit cabal of individuals practically ran the whole show, with Tommy increasingly at its centre. Tommy became the basket in which the SSP put all its political eggs and its total reputation.
That he was aware of his crucial strategic position within the organisation and the class at large in Scotland, yet still behaved in a way which would lay them wide open to devastating attack marks crass irresponsibility. That he compounded all of this by playing a huge game of poker with nothing but bluff and blather, knowing the entire SSP survival depended on it, and against the universal advice of his comrades, throws into doubt his values, certainly his judgment. But the SSP itself, had it been built as a revolutionary organisation, would have recognised this and taken measures early on to stop it happening.
The left and labour movement has to learn the lesson brought at such cost by Tommy Sheridan’s actions - not least to stop defending the politically irresponsible actions of our leaders.