Fact and Fiction - what's happened in the SSP?
The Scottish Socialist Party was viewed by socialists in Britain and around the world as a success story. The election of six MSPs to the Scottish Parliament was a breakthrough, taking advantage of a partial PR electoral system. The SSP united virtually all the socialist currents on the left in Scotland in a single party; a rare event in a country where fractious and warring left of Labour organisations had long been the norm. The conditions for this unity were created through a number of years of common work, which helped to overcome old hostilities. But today, that unity lies in tatters. The SSP has been split. Tommy Sheridan launched his new movement on September 3rd: Solidarity – the Scottish Socialist Movement. This brings to an end what has been described as “the most successful socialist unity project in Europe”.
The split resulted from Sheridan’s court case against the ‘News of the World’. Whilst it was a ‘sex scandal’ case centred on reports in this disreputable rag, the SSP leadership was effectively ‘on trial’. Eleven leading figures were subpoenaed to give evidence on the discussion which had taken place in the Party. Leading figures in the SSP gave contradictory versions of events. When Tommy Sheridan sacked his lawyers and took charge of his case he questioned these people and accused them of fabricating evidence against him. They insisted that they were telling the truth, which centred on whether or not he admitted, in a meeting of the SSP’s Executive Committee in 2004, attending the infamous ‘swingers’ club’ in Manchester.
Logically, if Sheridan was telling the truth, then the 11 leaders of the SSP were prepared to lie in court, inventing evidence to “fit him up”. If they were telling the truth, then Sheridan’s case was an incredibly reckless and cynical action which threatened to destroy the party he had played such a large part in building, in order to defend his “reputation”.
When you have two sides to an argument, telling different versions of events, and you weren’t at the meeting in question how can you possibly know who is telling the truth? This was the dilemma of socialists outside of Scotland, witnessing the crisis played out in court. How can you chart a course through these murky waters? All you can do is to examine the facts as you find them.
What do we know that is not in question? Firstly, Tommy Sheridan, against the advice of the Party leadership decided to take the News of the World to court on the grounds that stories it had published on his sex life were fabricated. Many people have said that his private life is nobody else’s business. This is naïve in the extreme. To imagine a prominent political figure, especially a socialist, can simply ignore the fact that they are under the microscope is not serious. If you are a political leader, or indeed a ‘celebrity’ in Britain, the press will do its best to bring you down in order to sell more papers with ‘sensational’ content. If you are a political leader of a party which professes to be different to the mainstream parties, then you have to be very careful indeed in your personal conduct, to do nothing which will compromise your political goals (open you up to the charge of hypocrisy, failing to live according to your professed values) or give the press a stick with which to beat you and your organisation. It’s the same as being a shop steward, though on a grander scale. You have to be a good worker and do nothing to compromise your position. The management will always seize on the slightest mistake; likewise with political leaders. Unfortunately we don’t live in France where, for example, the fact that Mitterand had a daughter outside of his marriage was not disclosed until after his death.
Scrutiny of the state
Tommy’s decision to go to court would have been reckless, even if there was no truth whatsoever in any of the material published by the NOTW. Those old enough will remember that when Arthur Scargill was accused of using NUM money for his own benefit during the miners’ strike, he chose not to take the Mirror to court, though the charge against him was ‘corruption’ rather than relating to his personal life. Taking on the very rich media in the courts is not just a question of the potential cost, should you lose, but it opens up individuals and their organisations to the scrutiny of the state.
Given the fact that Tommy Sheridan had resigned from his position as convenor, and this had been debated in the SSP, then the NOTW would inevitably examine what had taken place then. The court case was always likely to be disastrous for the SSP, whatever the outcome. When events are subject to dispute in a court case, all participants are open to the legal consequence of being charged with perjury. Tommy Sheridan’s decision to defend his “reputation” in court precipitated nothing less than a civil war in the SSP and its break-up. His “victory” by a 7 to 4 vote appeared to have vindicated him and given credence to his assertion that a “plot” involving at least 11 members of the leading body of the SSP had deliberately tried to frame him with fabricated evidence. Undoubtedly a majority of the jurors voted against the NOTW and its methods, including the payment of some witnesses, though, of course, none of the 11 SSP members.
The evidence relating to proceedings in the SSP, fabricated or not, centred on the minutes of a meeting at which the question of how to deal with the stories in the News of the World was discussed. Minutes were taken at the Executive Committee meeting and were agreed as a true record at the following meeting. At no stage around this time did Tommy or anybody else contest the accuracy of the minutes. Subsequently the minute taker and the EC were accused of fabricating the content. But if the minutes did not exist, or were invented, why did supporters of Tommy propose a resolution calling for the minutes to be destroyed?
One of the stories given credence by Tommy and his supporters was that a member of the leadership handed over the minutes, with a signed affidavit to the Herald. This was presented as a sign of the perfidy and unprincipled nature of Tommy’s opponents. The strange thing, however, is that there appear to be two copies of minutes, one of which, not in the hands of the Party, confirmed Tommy’s subsequent ‘denial’ of the club visits. This ‘version’ was ruled out of order in court. What is curious is why the Sunday Herald did not hand over its supposed copy of the minutes to the court. In fact it was the fake minutes sent in to the NOTW, apparently with initials of those present, which allowed the court to subpoena the EC members.
In his Open Letter to members, issued to the mass media, Tommy talks about a ‘secret record’ of the EC meeting which was kept without his knowledge. This is blatantly untrue since not only was it proposed that the minutes be kept confidential, but the National Council voted to do so!
It is ironic that those who Tommy has called “political scabs” were calling for defiance of the courts, on the grounds that the internal affairs of a workers’ organisation is none of their business. Indeed, his old friend Alan McCoombes was even prepared to go to prison to keep the minutes out of the court proceedings. Those now in the Sheridan camp were the ones who demanded the defiance be ended and that the minutes be handed over. Whilst Tommy talked of slurs from the “cabal”, the minutes indicate that he had admitted to attending a ‘swingers club’, and accepted he had been irresponsible, given the position he held in the Party.
So what should those who were subpoenaed to attend court have done? One of the arguments for “supporting Tommy” has been that once he decided to go to court, even if you thought he was making a mistake, you had to support him or you were “supporting Murdoch”. However, those who told a different version of events to Tommy were not volunteering to go to court. They were obliged to go because Tommy brought the case, in the name of his personal ‘right’ to ignore the collective view. He was demanding that they give an untruthful account of events; that is to say, he was asking them to incriminate themselves, and open themselves up to perjury charges, should his assertions be exposed to be untrue at a later stage. Those who hoe the ‘Tommy or Murdoch’ line were asking the 11 to agree in court that Tommy was right, that they had been lieing about events at the EC. Were they to destroy their credibility as political activists in order to defend his?
With SSP members being instructed to attend as witnesses, there could be no outcome other than somebody being deemed to be lying before the court. In order to defend what he deemed to be his “reputation” Tommy put members of the Party Executive Committee in an impossible position. They could either lie for him about the discussion on the EC, thereby condemning themselves, tell the truth (and be denounced as “scabs”) or refuse to give evidence and end up in prison/lose their job.
Ah, some say, wouldn’t it have been preferable to have a Sheridan victory rather than the NOTW winning? At the cost of destroying the SSP? At the cost of smearing most of the leading activists as being responsible for a “monstrous frame-up” of Tommy Sheridan? Would that be a “victory”?
So they say, you would have been in favour of a ‘Murdoch victory’. No. Whatever verdict was reached it was bound to be a disaster for the SSP. This situation was created by the decision of Tommy to go to court despite the advice of his comrades. Tommy’s self-regard and ruthless pursuance of his individual interests, above those of the SSP and the working class, have made the job of building a socialist alternative so much more difficult than it might have been. Years of work have been thrown away in defence of his “reputation”. Whilst decrying people for “supporting Murdoch” he has opportunistically used the very self-same media when he should have been partaking in an internal SSP discussion.
Those who want to paint “supporting Tommy” as “defending a workers’ leader against the bourgeois press” are actually supporting a tissue of lies. This is not somebody being prosecuted as a result of a strike. It is somebody who chose to defend his “reputation” and take the risk of losing in court, with dire financial consequences, and at the risk of discrediting the SSP. Tommy could have refused to be drawn on the stories. He could have said my private life is my own business, or whatever. Sadly he has shamelessly created a picture in the media of the “family man”: accepting, ironically, conventional mores – never for a moment would I be unfaithful, ad nauseam.
If anybody believes Tommy’s version of events, they have to explain why the majority of the leadership, many of them his closest friends for many years, should act in such an outrageous way. This would constitute a barely credible change in the conduct of the SSP which has a tradition of open discussion and reaching decisions through democratic debate. Debates can be very sharp, as with the discussion on ‘50%-50%’ – the decision to ensure women had shared places on the top of the electoral lists – but they have remained for the most part fraternal.
“I’ll destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me.”
Events since his ‘victory’ in court have shown that Tommy has not acted as a principled political leader. At least from the point where he issued his Open Letter, Tommy took his battle for control of the SSP into the very media that his opponents are being accused of supporting. Is there anything principled about denouncing them as ‘scabs’ in the Daily Record? After his 7-4 victory in court Tommy Sheridan and his wife were interviewed by the Record. It read like an issue of Hello magazine with Tommy telling the story of true love which will last to their dying day. He himself has confirmed he sold his story, reputedly for £25,000, justifying it on the grounds that it would give Gail time off work. Why would any socialist tell the intimate story of a relationship, smothered in romanticism? "I could never love anyone like I love her and she couldn't love anyone like she loves me. More than ever, we are cemented in rock. We will live and die together." What has this got to do with the future of the SSP?
Even worse than this portrayal of the archetypal family, with its soft focus picture, was the recruitment of the New Labour supporting Daily Record to Tommy’s campaign to take back the leadership of the SSP. “Sheridan exclusive – I’ll destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me.” Tommy told the Record he thought he had two months to “save the party he founded”. Excuse me, I though there were some other people involved. Wasn’t it a collective effort?
So disgusted were some of his long time friends with his use of the Record that six of them, who had previously refused to make any public comment, confirmed that Tommy had personally admitted to each of them his visits to the club and a relationship with Katrina Trolle, one of the witnesses and an ex-SSP member who he sought to destroy on the witness stand. Are these six lying as well? Why would they have joined in the “plot” at this late stage rather than joining in with the 11 earlier? Bear in mind that a lot of the anger and bitterness which has been created has been the result of Tommy’s treatment of women in court – examining their previous sexual history and so on. Talk by Tommy of a “gender discussion group”, as opposed to a ‘class party’, with no explanation, can only stir up prejudice amongst those who do not take seriously the struggle against women’s oppression.
He told the Record there was a 50-50 chance of him standing against Colin Fox. Mind you, he wanted strong evidence of support from a majority of the members before deigning to stand. 10 or 15 branch nominations would not be enough. He wanted 25 to 30. The members had to measure up to his exacting standards. This is an extraordinary statement. The SSP has supposedly been taken over by a bunch of “political scabs”, yet he would only consider challenging them if he was happy with the number of nominations! It appears he got 9 nominations.
In Tommy’s comments there is not even a hint of that little thing collective leadership which working class organisations require in contrast with the norm of the big party boss. He is apparently indispensable. “It’s me or oblivion”, screamed the Daily Record. Sadly, it is very difficult to draw any other conclusion than the man is a rampant individualist. His insistence on taking his case to court, despite the unanimous advice of the SSP Executive Committee, has proved to be a disaster.
From the position of seeking to drive out the 11 from the leadership, and ‘democratising’ the Party (the ‘SSP Majority’ website has the strapline of “democratic renewal of the SSP”), very swiftly Tommy decided to abandon it, to take as many people out of it as he could. What is staggering about this decision is the ease with which it was taken, and the fact that two platforms within the party, quickly supported the break up of the SSP. To say that the political explanation of such a decision is shoddy is an understatement.
What was probably a crucial factor in Tommy’s decision was the likelihood that he would not win top spot on the electoral list in the heartlands of the SSP. His declared position that the United Left platform would create a destructive internal environment after he had been elected Convenor, is hardly credible, since if he had won the election then it is a racing certainty that they would have walked out of a party which elected him despite his conduct.
A split without a discussion
At a meeting of his supporters Tommy proposed to leave the SSP. The two platforms, the CWI and Socialist Worker went away to discuss his proposal, only to find that he had already told the mass media about a ‘new party’ before they had the chance to discuss it and come to a collective decision. They were faced with the choice of going along with Sheridan, or staying in the SSP. They were not going to break with Sheridan having denounced the 11 as ‘scabs’ or people who ‘supported Murdoch’. They agreed, therefore, to a split without a political discussion. This is always the worst circumstances in which a split can take place.
The SWP in particular, since they had two witnesses in court, supporting the assertion that the 11 were framing Tommy, have taken a position where they cannot admit to the truth or else their people will be open to the charge of perjury with the threat of imprisonment. In order to justify the split they have cobbled together an argument about the ‘sectarianism’ of the leadership of the SSP. Even if there was a problem with sectarianism this would not be a justification for a split. And to listen to members of the SWP lecturing the SSP about its “bureaucratic” leadership is risible. This is an organisation (the SWP) which has only had one person stand for its leadership outside the ‘leadership slate’ in the past 15 years; and he was treated like a pariah. This is an organisation which was happy to take advantage of the right to form a “platform” in the SSP but denies its own members such a right.
Nobody should underestimate the implications of what these two organisations have done. In supporting a lie they have provided the state with the opportunity of charging the 11 with perjury and locking them up. They have supported the misrepresentation of the 11 as organisers of a frame-up, when the frame-up was actually directed at the 11.
Lying about anything of substance or importance is always a dangerous business, because the logic of the position leads to further lies to cover up the original one. You cannot build a political party which struggles against capitalism on such a basis.
So now there are two competing organisations in Scotland, with not much in the way of discernable political differences between them. Hugh Kerr writing a letter to the Guardian said that there is room for two socialist parties in Scotland. There might be if they collaborated, but what chance of that now? There may well be dire electoral consequences. The six MSPs, now shared between the two organisations, may well lose their seats. Whilst this is not the be all and end all of politics, it would be a significant blow.
What a travesty, calling an organisation Solidarity, when it is splitting the Party which has made the most significant advance for many, many decades, and denying the members the right to collectively decide its future.
The political roots of the split will be the subject of debate (for which there is not space here). In the first instance it was the result of the rampant individualism of a leader who would not accept a collective decision. At the same time it has been supported by self-interested sectarian organisations. These organisations behave like religious sects which have the only true version of the faith. They could not work together in the Socialist Alliance. There is no reason to expect that they will be able to work together in ‘Solidarity’.
The launch of Solidarity rests on the ‘holy trinity’ of Tommy Sheridan, the CWI and the SWP, two of his most vehement critics in the past. It is a potentially explosive cocktail. The new organisation had barely been launched than Socialist Worker started distancing itself from Sheridan. In the report on the launch of Solidarity he was described as ‘downbeat’, whilst leading SWP member Dave Sherry expressed his disappointment at Tommy’s apparent failure to discuss what the new organisation needed to do over the next few months. Then we read from the lips of one member of the audience that he would probably join, but there needed to be more strong people around Tommy “to challenge him”. What they needed to challenge him on was not explained. However the inclusion of this material is not accidental. It’s like a message in Pravda giving the cadres guidance: they can read the code.
Of course, it would be a mistake to see only virtue on one side and sin on the other. There will undoubtedly be people who join Solidarity because they have believed the cock and bull story about the 11. There is already a debate taking place in the SSP on how the crisis emerged and what mistakes were made. But the responsibility for the crisis rests on the shoulders of Tommy Sheridan and those who know the truth but support him nonetheless.
As ever it is the working class which pays the price of sectarianism, and of leaders who place their own interests above those of the working class. ‘My leader right or wrong’ is no basis for building any working class organisation, be it a political organisation, a trade union or a community based one.
In conclusion, I believe socialists in Britain should support the SSP against what is an unprincipled split. The inevitable struggle between the SSP and ‘Solidarity’ will not be determined in the media but on the ground, in working class communities, union branches and so on. From that point of view, the SSP, I believe, has deeper roots. They deserve the support of socialists who strive for a break from sectarianism and the Great Leader phenomenon, both of which have disfigured the British left for decades.