The author of Downfall, Alan McCombes had been a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party for several years, and the editor of the Scottish Socialist Voice until 2003.
Together with Sheridan, a fellow member of Militant, McCombes had played a leading role in the anti-poll tax movement. His 1988 pamphlet, How To Beat The Poll Tax, advocated a mass non-payment campaign. With Tommy Sheridan, he was also author of Imagine: A Socialist Vision for the 21st Century [Canongate Books 2000]
In 1992 McCombes was a leading figure in persuading Militant in Scotland to organize openly independently of the Labour Party resulting in the creation of Scottish Militant Labour. Throughout the 1990s, he challenged the traditional “British Road to Socialism”, arguing for the left to champion the idea of an independent Scottish socialist republic. In 1995, he promoted a Scottish Socialist Alliance to unite the left that laid the basis for the emergence of the SSP in which McCombes held the position of policy co-ordinator.
The events recalled in Alan McCombes’ Downfall seem both sadly realistic and depressingly common. Published in 2011, it is an intensely individual story, obviously partisan in the telling, and immensely political in its message. One can read it as a narrative of a flawed individual who made some bad decisions, but it is not a morality tale; it is more a statement of record of a contested account that split the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) over Tommy Sheridan’s defamation action against the News International.
The Scottish Socialist Party was formed in 1998 to contest the first elections of Scotland’s new parliament.
It was created after a number of left-wing organisations which made up the Scottish Socialist Alliance aligned to form a single party which allowed various fractions or platforms to operate within it. Former Militant members – organized as International Socialist Movement – were the largest group but the Alliance contained other representatives from the Trotskyist Left as well as non-aligned Scottish socialist members.
The roots of this development lay organisationally in the break-up of the entryist Trotskyist organisation Committee for a Workers’ International better known south of the border for the Militant Tendency organised within the British Labour Party. [Read more about the origins of the Militant tendency in Ted Grant’s opinionated account History of British Trotskyism.]
There had been the sanctioned division of the CWI’s British section into two organisational units in the mid-1990s. In England and Wales, following a series of exclusions from the Labour Party, Militant Labour changed its name to the Socialist Party after a somewhat fraught internal debate during 1996-97. In Scotland, the organisation retained the name, Scottish Militant Labour. It advocated a broader socialist alignment in the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Their English-based comrades disagreed.
Between them was a bitter row over the transformation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance into the Scottish Socialist Party in September 1998. In 2001, the International Socialist Movement – formerly Scottish Militant Labour – finally completed its break.
The SSP advocated proportional representation, abolition of the monarchy and an end to the union through the creation of an independent, Scottish republic.
The SSP achieved electoral success almost instantly when one of its founders, Tommy Sheridan, was elected to Holyrood as a list MSP for Glasgow in 1999. Tommy Sheridan was central to the initial success of the party.
He had been the face and the voice of the anti-poll tax demonstrations in Scotland in the 1980s, and was jailed three times over protests against warrant sales, poindings and nuclear weapons. And he was more media savvy than most.
And at the end of 2000 the party’s campaign to have warrant sales and poindings abolished paid off when Mr Sheridan’s members’ bill made it through parliament.
The SSP leader caused a stir in parliament from the start, when he swore the oath of allegiance to the Queen with a clenched fist raised to signal his protest. He was in parliament for four years before being joined by five of his party colleagues in 2003 – making the SSP the largest left-wing party in Scotland. At its height, as well as six MSPs, the SSP boasted 3,000 members, scores of branches and the support of important trade union organisations. In 2003, at its annual delegate conference, the Labour-affiliated Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union voted to allow its branches to affiliate to the SSP. It secured more than 245,000 votes across the country.
Six MSPs were elected on the regional list: Carolyne Leckie in Central, Colin Fox in the Lothians, Frances Curran in the West of Scotland seat, Rosemary Byrne in the South of Scotland and Tommy Sheridan and Rosie Kane in Glasgow.
In November 2004 the News of the World ran a series of stories, smutty allegations and innuendoes claiming a married MSP had visited a swingers’ club and had committed adultery.
Shortly afterwards, Tommy Sheridan resigned as convener of the SSP, citing personal reasons, and announced his intention to sue. When Sheridan stated he was going to sue the newspapers over the allegations, SSP MP Caroline Leckie said: “There is no official backing behind any legal challenge.” Alan McCombes, the SSP’s policy coordinator and one-time close friend of Sheridan’s, casually said: “The executive committee does not want to go down a road where we are helping Tommy Sheridan build a tower of lies.”
The Workers’ Weekly, a reporting source for any confrontation within the British Left (while continuing to relentlessly criticise their failings) stated it understood that
“the executive committee of the SSP urged Sheridan not to fight the thing out in the courts. It voted unanimously to tell him to fight using other, political, methods. Events so far have tended to indicate this would have been the best course.”
Weekly Worker Issue 628 07.06.2006 Defend SSP’s Alan McCombes
Scottish Socialist Party official Alan McCombes was jailed for refusing to hand over party documents to the Court. The now-closed News of the World had requested the internal minutes, which it claims would help defend a defamation case brought by former SSP leader . McCombes was jailed for 12 days after he ignored a deadline to release the papers. SSP offices and comrades’ homes were search in a vain attempt to find the required document, minutes of the November 9 2004 SSP executive meeting which forced Tommy Sheridan to resign as convenor.
Four SSP MSPs gave evidence against their former leader during his legal action against the newspaper, which Sheridan won in 2006, along with £200,000 in damages.
He was later retried and found guilty of perjury, and was jailed for three years in 2011. The investigation and subsequent perjury trial were estimated to have cost £4 million to £5 million, which shows the State has deep pockets when its interests are involved.
His former comrades said while this outcome had vindicated them, the socialist movement in Scotland had been very badly damaged in the process. In the midst of the saga, in the 2007 Scottish elections, the SSP’s vote slumped and the party lost all its MSPs.
Sheridan left the SSP after he won the first court case and formed another party, Solidarity. He failed in his bid to return to Holyrood as a Solidarity MSP in 2007. The group failed to make any progress and in 2020, he joined Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.
Accusation & charges
Throughout the whole episode the reporting on the Left was posturing and the sectarian left’s condemnatory vocabulary was given full expression. The political analysis shaped by an understanding of what caused the internal crisis within the SSP. Beside political disagreements, hostile to the “opportunistic and abject surrender to nationalism” of the SSP, there were differences as to where the emphasis was placed: the central issue being mistakenly presented as Sheridan’s alleged personal behaviour or the News International’s attacks on a leading socialist.
After the first court case, Sheridan described his former colleagues as “scabs” in a tabloid interview, and those who had given evidence against him reportedly faced threats and attacks by his supporters. Sheridan did not explain he had wanted the Executive Committee for political expediency to lie in defence of his personal interests. The first case saw him victorious, awarded a cash settlement.
In the second case he was later found guilty of perjury, and was jailed for three years at the start of 2011. Sheridan spent a year in prison.
A false argument was raised that the conviction of Tommy Sheridan for perjury was the result of a political vendetta, waged by Rupert Murdoch’s News International in a de facto alliance with the Lothian and Borders Police and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). However, McCombes did observe that “Like Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, two top Tory politicians who served lengthy jail sentences for their actions, Tommy Sheridan took out a libel action based on a fraud: at least some of the material published in the trashy tabloid News of the World was substantially true.”
Sheridan’s former comrades had said while this outcome had vindicated them, however their movement in Scotland had been very badly damaged in the process.
Far from joining forces with The News of the World in bringing Sheridan down as critics claim, McCombes’ explanation is the more believable:
He declared himself a hostile witness, describing the case as a “squalid little squabble” but was ordered to answer questions by the judge. He said: “I am here under the strongest possible protest. […] Your client, I have to say, the News of the World, symbolises everything that as a socialist I have stood against my whole adult life. […] It should have been settled by one of both parties before innocent people were dragged into this bizarre pantomime.”
McCombes published account does provide a detailed, convincing rationale for why the SSP members who testified ‘against’ Sheridan did what they did. On 7 July 2006, McCombes gave evidence in the defamation proceedings launched by Tommy Sheridan against the News of the World stating that Sheridan had admitted to him that he had visited swingers clubs. His version of events was supported by ten other people who were present at the meeting and matched the minutes of the meeting presented in court, though these were naturally disputed during the court case.
August 2006, in the aftermath of the Sheridan defamation case, McCombes publicly released an all-members bulletin addressed to SSP membership, entitled “The Fight for the Truth” in which he said Tommy Sheridan’s libel victory over the News of the World “could set back the cause of socialism by years if not decades” because of the divisions that had occurred within the party and went on to give his view of the events leading up to the trial.
Downfall reads well, with a few jarring exceptions and Tommy Sheridan’s implosion recounted with insider perspective could not resist a few incidental snipes about Sheridan, understandable given the personal enmity, and consequences of the anger at the selfish actions of the man who wrought destruction on the SSP. Some might describe Downfall as a forensic indictment of a man who sold out his comrades for ego. Along the way is an insight to a fraying strand of early 21st century Scottish political radicalism. Tommy Sheridan should be commended for his anti poll tax stance, but like so many others somewhere along the way he was twisted by his fame; Yes victimised by the press, but also losing traction with the political service as too often the Left lauds the individual rather than the movement and its aims.
In August 2022 the disgraced former MSP Tommy Sheridan was declared bankrupt over an £82,000 legal bill after his failed bid to prove he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
When McCombes left the SSP employment he moved to central Scotland to work engaged in environmental activity. With Roz Paterson, he co-authoured the 2014 publication, Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History. Glasgow: Calton Books.
Alan McCombes, Downfall. Glasgow: Birlinn Ltd