Thursday, 23 December 2010

Tommy Sheridan: Tragedy and Farce

I thought he was going to pull it off. Thanks to the excellent in-depth coverage by James Doleman and his comrades at the High Court in Glasgow, we know Tommy Sheridan fielded a spirited and convincing defence. In contrast the prosecution's case was shambolic, farcical and at times threatened to come apart at the seams. When Gail Sheridan was acquitted and 12 charges were dropped, anyone would be forgiven for thinking Tommy Sheridan would escape conviction. In fact, you could almost say the prosecution deserved to lose. But that wasn't to be. Despite the amateurish investigation underpinning the charges, despite a cack-handed job of handling the evidence, and despite the rhetorical power of Tommy's defence, the jury of 12 women and two men found him guilty of the six charges remaining on the Crown's indictment.

Very few people who've followed the case since Tommy's sudden and unexpected resignation as the Scottish Socialist Party's convener six years ago would have had their minds changed by the evidence presented. Speaking for myself, I was a member of the Socialist Party at the time of the original defamation case brought by Tommy against
News of the World. I originally (and perhaps naively) believed he hadn't done it, but changed my mind after its successful conclusion. And what's more most of my comrades believed he'd done it too. Nevertheless the party, the SWP, and a sizable chunk of the far left stuck with Tommy. The logic of this part-political, part-moral position is set out in this article from The Socialist. Political because Tommy was Scotland's "most iconic post-war socialist" and had pull among the Scottish working class beyond the collective profile of the rest of the far left. Moral because socialists shouldn't look down the noses at comrades' sexual preferences, let alone testify against them in court.

Presented like this the whole affair looks straightforward. If you're in the business of building a left alternative and trying to build the capacity and combativity of a relatively quiescent working class, it was your duty to stand by Tommy as he sued the
News of the World and again when the Crown came after him for perjury. It was a case of the working class vs the boss class, played out in a court room.

But this is to violently distort the politics and morality of the case.

Tommy wasn't up on perjury charges as an outcome of a protest, strike, or dispute. It was because he lied in his defamation action. He wasn't featured in the
News of the World because of his record of struggle. He was, like many politicians before him and no doubt many more to come, caught with his pants down. And before he was named by the paper as the MSP dilly-dallying with Anvar Khan, he'd held his hands up to the SSP executive and confessed. While some members may have a particular attitude to sex and fidelity, the exec didn't sack Tommy because of his peccadilloes. He was asked to step down because he intended to sue News of the World for defamation, despite admitting the story was substantially true, and because he expected *others* to risk their necks by going along with it. In other words, Tommy asked his comrades, many of whom he'd worked with for 20 years, to buy into a lie so he could trouser a couple of hundred grand in damages.

Surely no socialist in their right mind would go along with such a scheme. But some did, even to the extent of lying in court themselves. I hope they will not find themselves brought up on perjury charges too. However, those SSP members who refused to lie to satisfy one man's vanity were unjustly vilified as scabs and class traitors. Unfortunately,
Barbara Scott, Alan McCombes, George McNeilage and others were subsequently so consumed with rage and hate that they were prepared to cross the line. It is understandable why they did what they did, but inexcusable for all that. As long as they play any kind of front line role in the SSP their actions will cast a shadow the organisation cannot shake off.

But every action has its precursor, and none of this would have happened had Tommy listened to counsel wiser than his ego. In some parallel world there exists a united SSP and a stronger Scottish anti-cuts movement because, at some point in 2004, Tommy made the right decision. But here, he didn't. He has destroyed a viable socialist organisation and left behind him a trail of toxic wreckage that will take socialists in Scotland decades to clean up. This is Tommy's doing. His. Against this his previous good works come to nought. What a shame, what a waste.

Tragedy and farce? That about sums it up.

25 comments:

Phil said...

Thanks for that, Phil - I think it's a very fair and even-handed summing-up. Yes, McNeilage and others crossed the line & did things no socialist ever should do. But no, Sheridan is not an innocent victim; he's shown arrogance, hypocrisy and hubris. I'm glad the charges have stuck - an acquittal would have been outrageous - but sorry they were ever brought; above all, I'm sorry that the Scottish Left has come to this.

Riversider said...

Whenever a class fighter is injured, people queue up to give them a few more kicks. Sad that you should feel it neccessary to join in with the bootboys.

Here's my analysis of the persecution of the Sheridans: http://riversstream.blogspot.com/2010/12/solidarity-with-sheridans.html

M said...

Exactly what Rupert Murdoch and his rich mates wanted.

EFComrade said...

Im quite suprised by this post because whilst I agree with alot of what you have said. You wander of the track when you state that Tommy was not in court for any of his political activity. I would have thought a marxist sociologist like yourself would not have fallen into that trap.

Whilst none of the acts which saw him in caught were directly linked to his political activity, this would not have happened to me or you in the same situation would it, This was a clear attempt by the anti-working class news international to discredit the Scottish left as it was the most powerful left force in britain at the time. After Tommy they would have gone for the MSPs one after another.

Unfortunately much of the left including the SSP didnt see this view and co-operated fully with the investigation, several as you say crossed the line, but the whole SSP are implicated in that because no action has been taken against these people, neither has any action ever been taken against the SSY members who burnt a efigy of Tommy, which undoubtedly helped the prosecution as they the SSY effectively came into the public domain to say that Tommy was guilty.

As a consequence of these actions, and the actions of leading SSP members of ITV News last night (and probably other news agencies and the newspapers this morning) openly saying they are glad Yommy was found guility. Now Both Tommy and in particular the whole of the SSP and the Scottish left in general have become increasingly irrelevant and News Internarional has no need to go after the rest of the SSP leadership as they did it themselves.

A Tradegy and a farce for a left organisation able to unite the Socialist Left and had a great working relationship with the RMT

Phil said...

I agree with EFComrade on one point: the state almost certainly wouldn't have gone after him for lying his face off in court if he hadn't been who he is. Which is precisely why he shouldn't have given them the opportunity. Suing the NOTW in the first place was arrogant, stupid and unnecessary - if he'd had any sense he would have laughed it off.

Loz said...

Indeed a tragedy Phil. For many of us disillusioned with Blair's quasi-religious warmongering mania, the pre-split SSP was a real beacon of hope and a model for what was possible. I was on the NUJ NEC from 2003/4, and many members of that executive bar a handful of hardline Labour loyalists were ecstatic at the election of 7 SSP MSPs and started to think it was possible to do the same in England and elsewhere.

Whilst the self-destruction of the SSP was by no means the only factor, its subsequent collapse severely dented the confidence of those of us who were in a position to start really building a similar alternative south of the border.

Whichever way you split the difference, Sheridan was a charismatic figure that inspired many to get active in socialist politics and the struggle for justice, and his Poll Tax fight will always go down as an example of how to take on the establishment.

I have found the self-satisfaction of several so-called socialists about the jailing of Sheridan within my own local Labour party to be extremely distasteful and very telling about their actual motivations in politics.

What Sheridan actually did is no morally worse than a number of New Labour figures did (Ron Davies on Clapham Common anyone?) and I think we know that it is common for political figures tend to have "niche" tendencies. Anyone who tries to claim the moral high ground is setting themselves up to fail at some point.

That said, Sheridan's subsequent decision to fight Murdoch in the bosses courts then go on Celebrity Big Brother will always go down as an example of how not to fight and where he actually went wrong.

It is right to say that had he not gone to the bosses courts in the first place, he would not have ended up in this position. The story would have been forgotten like all of these boring sex and drug scandals are and nobody would have really given a shit after a short time and I suspect he would still be an MSP now along with the rest of them.

It is also right to say that had a number of "comrades" not gone running to the press and police, then this wouldn't have happened either.

End result is everyone comes out mired in shit and mistrust and even now, some years later, competing bureaucracies continue to hold absolutist "with us or against us" positions on the issue above all other considerations. Meanwhile there is no elected socialist representation in the Scottish parliament.

It would be good if everyone just admitted they had made a mistake.

But on the left these days, admitting an error of judgement is just not the done thing and obviously you have to choose which camp you are in and stick doggedly to that position and slate and denigrates your enemies who disagree with you.

It's a bit like George Bush proclaiming you are "either with us or against us" after 9/11...trying to make a complicated and difficult issue a black and white fight between "right and wrong".

It's infantile and as has been evidenced, it puts people off left politics.

Phil said...

Come on, Riversider. I know there's a thinking brain knocking around in that head of yours.

Think about this situation.

Imagine, for arguments sake, a leading SP union member had behaved in a way that could attract negative publicity. At a subsequent meeting of the SP's NC, in front of comrades present, s/he confessed to behaviour some might find improper. However, they believed there was no evidence and planned to sue the newspaper running the story for personal gain. It's clear to all concerned this is a high risk strategy.

What do you do?

Do you think it's right and proper that socialists go along with this charade? I don't. It's a fundamentally corrupt course of action.

But this is what Tommy expected. As did the leadership of your organisation and the SWP.

Phil said...

Glyn, I think politics does have bugger all to do with the trial. The press goes after politicians who are caught bed hopping, that is a fact of life. It doesn't matter what their political colours are, they'll get covered. And so it was with Tommy's case.

Arguments that the perjury charges were motivated by politics don't stand up either. Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken were hardly threats to the establishment but they faced the same charge and got sent down for it. Just because Tommy's 'one of ours' doesn't make him a special case.

Phil said...

I think Loz we need take a leaf out of South Africa's book and have our own 'truth and reconciliation commission'. Not that it would ever happen - the would-be leaders of our class will never do a mea culpa.

Riversider said...

First of all, what personal gain did Tommy make out of this? He has always worked as a workers representative on a worker's wage.

Secondly, there are plenty of times where Trade Unionists and socialists use tactics that others consider mistaken or rash. The NUM went for strike action without a ballot for example. Does this mean you abandon them to a fate 'they have made for themselves'?

Look at the big picture, the clash of class forces that lies behind this persecution rather than getting trapped in bourgeois narratives. Now that Tommy faces jailtime, he needs solidarity more than ever before. The people who put him there know who they are, and should not be given excuses for being scabs.

When the NUM's assets were being sequestrated by the state, did the officials say 'we must tell the truth, however painful'? No, they stood by their union rather than selling it to the state.

I recommend that you read 'Their Morals and Ours' again, but pay attention this time.

Phil said...

Just remembered, I'm reminded of a lead off I did shortly after the original case for SP branch. I remember you there Loz talking about a Glaswegian woman you met in the street in London (I think!) who was ecstatic at the then outcome. Unfortunately, I wonder now how many more will have been driven away from politics now Tommy has shown to be a liar like all the rest.

Phil said...

Riversider, Tommy *chose* to take the News of the World to court. He won. He stood to gain £200k, which NOTW have yet to pay. He then subsequently called former comrades scabs in the Daily Record for about £60k. Not bad work if you can get it.

This is the problem. You are seeing the case through a prism that isn't remotely appropriate. Can you compare Tommy's attempt to get comrades to lie for him to get dosh out of the Murdoch press with the tactical and strategic blunders of the miners' strike. Really?

There is no conspiracy against Tommy. No balance of class forces depending on the outcome of the trial. There is certainly factional advantages to be had, but they're not the same thing, are they?

It's funny you should mention Trotsky's pamphlet. As Madam Miaow is fond of saying, he wrote a pamphlet called 'Their Morals and Ours', not 'Their Morals and We Ain't Got Any'. Tommy asked socialists to lie in court, i.e. commit a crime, just so he could win money. That is corrupt and as far as you can get from socialist principles.

If Tommy wasn't a socialist but a mainstream politician I doubt you'd be so blinkered.

EFComrade said...

whilst Tommy is not perfect and taking the action wasnt against news international was a silly move, every effort should have been made to convince him not to at the time, but if he choose to go ahead with it which he obviously did then the SSP should not have turned its back on Tommy precisely for the reasons I gave above.

It was disastrous for the SSP and the left in general in the long term, the SSP should have stuck by Tommy throughout the trial and then taken action against him afterwards. In the end the SSP leadership committed suicide and crossed the line.

Anonymous said...

There's still part of me thinking, it's just possible that this guy is innocent and that he has been stitched-up.

What sort of person would make that tape, for instance! The same sort of person that would collude to falsify one, no doubt.

And if witnesses said he was at the SSP festival on the 27th Sept., how could he be in two places at once?

Surely, if he was at the festival, then loads of people would remember a prominent politician like Tommy.

Have, the police even bothered to ask if there's any further witnesses for that occasion? I suspect not, because they weren't looking for the truth, only to convict Tommy.

JRG said...

Phil - I am a member of the CWI - and in relation to your suggestion about what would the SP do if one of its members was in this position - the answer is simple - the SP would never, ever have discussed the issue at an Executive meeting.

The problem created by the NotW article was compounded by the SSP Executive discussing it - and then recording a 'minute'. If neither of these things had happened every single one of the people at the meeting could have gone to court and said 'we didn't discuss it' - end of story and end of any criminal case involving the SSP.

McCoombes should have been smart enough to go to Sheridan and say 'temporarily step aside and the SSP will issue a statement supporting you and declaring that this is a personal matter for you to deal with on a personal basis'. If Sheridan wins then there is no problem - if Sheridan loses he can be cut loose. Instead sections of the SSP leadership decided to use the issue to shaft Sheridan.

Robert said...

Well Phil Tommy is almost certainly as guilty as hell and his arrogance has caught up with him. He'll do time and the News of the World will pursue him for costs. There''ll almost certainly be a cost order against him and he could lose his house when he gets out. So he's been well punished for his mistakes.

It is however possible to believe both that Tommy is a perjured egomaniacal son of Satan and also that the actions of a faction in the SSP in selling tapes to the News of the World were despicable.

Lobby Ludd said...

Phil, you said:

"Tommy asked socialists to lie in court, i.e. commit a crime, just so he could win money. That is corrupt and as far as you can get from socialist principles."

Are you sure he did it for the money? In a way it would be better that he did. As it is he comes across as someone unable to come to terms with his own sexual behaviour, or as a cynic who wishes to preserve a certain image. (I suppose stupidity might be an explanation, but is Sheridan stupid?)

Either way, expecting your comrades to support you in your foolish enterprise is not the mark of a person of principle.

Lonely Nobody said...

Excellent summary of the whole case surrounding Tommy Sheridan.

I think that this case should serve as an example to people that have high UK media public profiles especially within Left-Wing Politics around Sexual Behaviour & Sexuality in that sections of the UK Media will use this against you along with the fact that the individual needs to stand firm.

I am both a Socialist & a Swinger (am serious); yet if due to my work I gained a Public Profile I would admit what I do in a...
'It's not illegal & what's my Sexuality or Sexual Orientation got to do with you' manner.

Yet, am not the one whose married to a Woman that I've know since youth. That's what got Tommy into this mess his fear of having to admit to Gail what he was getting up to.

If he had that courage he would have never had to spend time in a Crown Court yet my issue with him is that it reads that he transformed his guilt into...

His group of Socialists vs. The Rupert Murdoch Machine.

He was wrong to twist his faults into tapping into people Socialist values in getting 'one over the man' or later system.
Just because the system exploits people then I should exploit it?

In the end the lines get blurred with an extreme example being the Baader-Meinhof Gang. It simply can't work this is where Anarchists also fail.

Another sad tale is how the Rupert Murdoch Machine is obsessed with individuals Sexuality yet this ONLY works because of the British attitude towards this subject.

Still the blame & responsibility is totally with Tommy Sheridan.

The loser is Gail Sheridan & my feelings go to her as her husband made a circus out of something that should have been dealt between them even if it was front-page news.

What Scottish & Socialists never do is turn our back on Tommy Sheridan. His time in Prison might make him a better person along with a Socialist.

If he does his time & admits he was wrong thus deserving of his sentence then support him we must.

In my hope, I feel that this might not be the end of Tommy Sheridan but his finest life-changing moment?

Phil said...

Someone who would make a tape of their mate would have no problem faking such a tape, therefore the tape is a fake. Hmm, some convoluted logic there, anonymous.

Let's face it no amount of evidence is going to convince some people that that tape is genuine. True, the prosecution didn't bring in the experts - but then where were the defence's? One witness after another traipsing out to say "that can't be Tommy, Tommy doesn't swear" was ludicrous and unconvincing. Why not produce voice analysis proving it was a fake? (incidentally, I recall some comrades branding the tape a fake within hours of its initial release - none are so blind as those who do not wish to see).

Phil said...

JRG, you know as well as I the CWI - well, the SP at least - doesn't do minuted meetings. And when the issue was raised in the party a few years ago the comrades raising it were accused of looking for gossip.

But that's by the by. As you know from the trial reports on James Doleman's blog, McCombes et al *did* try to take Tommy aside. In fact the executive meeting was called *because* he'd been avoiding leading figures.

Phil said...

Indeed Robert, it is possible to believe those things. What you've said about sums my analysis up.

Lobby, who can say what motivated Tommy to take Murdoch to court. But he stood to gain £200k from the defamation action. Whichever way his actions are spun, you cannot forget about the money.

And cheers, Lonely. The principled way to deal with these sorts of allegations is to tell the press to take a running jump. Had he done that the accumulated poison of six years bitterness could have so easily been avoided.

hannah said...

I am relieved to read your blog Phil because it is neither vindictive nor naive. Re 'crossing lines' however, I suppose it depends on who draws them. Before the McNeilage tape was even released, Tommy took£30,000 for publicly villifying people who had helped build the movement in Scotland as Scabs with the most violent threat to 'destroy' them. Did he cross a line?

Lobby Ludd said...

What seems so basic is that Sheridan 'crossed the line' when he refused to follow informal and formal instructions not to go to law when he had conceded that what the NotW said was substantially true.

The SP and SWP in Scotland now appear to be defending a liar and a fool, not for his political actions, but for, well who knows what...name recognition perhaps.

I don't suppose Sheridan will feature much in SWP or SP political work in the near future. He has, after all, outlived his usefulness.

Phil said...

That's where I think you're wrong, Lobby. A Tommy defence campaign is to be launched in the new year. I can't see either the SWP or SPS/CWI downgrading it - to much of their political capital (such as it is) is bound up and defined by the Tommy saga.

Lobby Ludd said...

"A Tommy defence campaign is to be launched in the new year."

Good grief. Keep digging, that'll sort it.

Oh, my eyes.