THIS IS NOT AN ALLEGORY -A charismatic male political leader who gathers his support around his powerful personality, is revealed as a dodgy bully, who uses his power to prey sexually on women, is taken to court -nay takes the whole nation to court himself -twice!- is publicly disgraced, but sets himself up in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and in Russian media, sets up his own new political party, full of sycophantic followers … and … WE MAKE NO EXCUSES FOR REPUBLISHING THIS REVIEW FROM SEVERAL YEARS AGO (from New Left Project 2012) – will we never learn ? It’s enough to make us recommend never voting for a man to lead your country …
4 August 2006. Tommy Sheridan stands outside Edinburgh’s Court of Session, his left arm raised, fist clenched tight in familiar pose. Accompanied by his unwaveringly loyal wife, Gail, the Scottish left’s hugely popular poster boy has just pulled off a stunning legal victory. Following an enthralling month-long defamation action, the Scottish Socialist Party’s (SSP) Convener emerges with a 7-4 victory, his reputation seemingly intact, and a £200,000 damages award against News International to boot. Before a bedazzled press corps, Sheridan, seldom stuck for a sporting simile, exhorts in familiar gravelly timbre that the result is like Scottish footballing minnows, Gretna Green, defeating giants, Real Madrid, at the Bernabéu, on penalties. It’s the Friday before the opening weekend of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but this is where the drama is located.
Published accounts challenging Sheridan’s status as a vice-free and devoted husband had first emerged in a series of 2004/5 Scottish News of the World articles carrying lurid headlines: ‘Married MSP is Spanking Swinger’; ‘My Kinky Four-in-a-Bed Orgy with Tommy’. Sheridan initiated legal proceedings and the ensuing court case heard extraordinarily salacious tales involving drink- and drug-fuelled orgies, prostitution, political frame-ups, even witness intimidation and hints of gangsterism. In the blue corner, lawyers for the world’s largest news corporation maintained that their reports were, in legal jargon, ‘substantially true’. In the red corner, Scotland’s perma-tanned, proletarian hero sacked his Q. C. and represented himself. Taking the witness stand, Sheridan maintained the veracity of his clean-living public image, claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by the Murdoch Empire. The bountiful number of conspirators in cahoots with Murdoch included, but was not restricted to, numerous journalists, jealous political associates, random ‘scene-of-the crime’ witnesses, two of the three best men at his wedding, and three women who claimed carnal knowledge of Sheridan. The latter comprised two female socialist activists and the NotW’s self-styled Sex Columnist, Anvar Khan. During the trial it became clear that some NotW evidence was undoubtedly of questionable quality, and antipathy towards tabloid muckraking perhaps influenced some jury members; nevertheless, Sheridan’s outlandish version of events was, as one witness put it, ‘frankly, preposterous’. The unexpected outcome was best encapsulated in Gail Sheridan’s gaze as she stood outside the court and stared, openmouthed and seemingly flabbergasted, into her husband’s eyes.
Fast forward to 30 January 2012. Sheridan addresses another crowded press corps. This time reporters assemble outside his Glasgow home, eager to hear the words from Castle Huntly open prison’s most recent ex-con. It was unsurprising to those close to the case that in December 2007 Sheridan was charged with perjury. His wife – who testified that she was with her husband on the occasions of his alleged infidelities – was charged with perjury three months later. A lengthy criminal trial commenced on 4 October 2010: charges were dropped against Gail Sheridan in December; the case against Tommy Sheridan was reduced to one charge of perjury containing six allegations, of which the jury, on a majority verdict, convicted him of five. He received a three-year prison sentence in January 2011, serving just over one year. Before the assembled press pack, Sheridan repeated his well-rehearsed conspiracy theories and vowed to clear his name. His dwindling band of followers cheered, but the sound was drowned out by disgruntled groans throughout Scotland.
Sheridan’s demise has been an astonishing fall from grace for a man once voted runner-up only to Sean Connery in the Sunday Herald’s 2004 ‘Greatest Living Scot’ poll. Reporting the result, the newspaper correctly cited Sheridan’s perceived ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ as pivotal to his success. In the ensuing eight years, however, Sheridan’s reputation has nosedived with ‘disgraced’ and ‘liar’ now the epithets accompanying his name in the increasingly infrequent press reports in which he appears. Sheridan recently received a rare public boost when, in the wake of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report into phone-hacking, Tom Watson MP opined that Sheridan’s conviction was unsafe, arguing that the 2010 jury was not in possession of the full facts when they arrived at their verdict. If Watson wants to discover more of the facts behind the case, he should turn his attention to two books: Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography by Gregor Gall.
Both accounts chart Sheridan’s political career, from his formative political years as a Labour Party Young Socialists and Militant organiser in the eighties, through to his leading role during the anti-poll tax campaign, his election from a prison cell to Glasgow City Council in 1992, and his subsequent election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. With Sheridan as its charismatic figurehead, the SSP returned six MSPs in 2003, a remarkable achievement for a party founded five years previously with the aim of uniting the Scottish far left’s disparate components. Its success, however, proved short-lived as the court cases and their fallout led to organizational fracture and electoral annihilation.
The labyrinthine complexities of the defamation action and its aftermath are painstakingly detailed in both books. The authors’ political analyses are, of course, open to debate, but only those unwilling to face up to the facts of the matter will remain unconvinced of Sheridan’s guilt. Indeed, as Gall notes, even one of his most vocal supporters, George Galloway, stated on his radio show in the wake of the guilty verdict that Sheridan, as Galloway put it, ‘lied about his sex life’. But it wasn’t simply his sex-life that Sheridan had lied about. In order to ‘prove’ his conspiracy theory, Sheridan spun one of the greatest webs of deceit in Scottish legal history and then used his formidable oratorical powers in an attempt to lay waste to anyone who challenged it.
I should, for the record, outline my relationship to the books, and to their subject matter. I was one of twenty-four friends, family members and associates of Sheridan that Gall interviewed for background research. I also read initial drafts of McCombes’ book and offered advice on how he might weave a path through the myriad political and legal complexities of the process. I have also known Sheridan very well since the mid 80s when we both worked together on political activity on a daily basis over a number of years. I lost count of the numbers of times we were arrested together on anti-apartheid protests, picket lines and anti-poll tax occupations. I am also, for better or worse, familiar with pertinent aspects of Sheridan’s personal life; specifically, in 2005, Sheridan told me that he had attended Cupids sex club, revealed who he was with, and outlined a kamikaze plan to pursue litigation. I argued that, not only was it a morally questionable path to pursue, but recalling the downfall of both Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, that it would most likely end in disaster. But I was far from alone. Sheridan had told the November 2004 meeting of the SSP Executive Committee that the allegations involving a relationship with Anvar Khan and his attendance at Cupids were, although embellished by the newspaper, substantially true. When Sheridan outlined plans to pursue the defamation action, he was forced to resign. This meeting became crucial to the subsequent legal action as its attendees were cited to testify under the threat of court action.
McCombes was one of those involved directly. As the SSP’s former Press and Policy Coordinator, he was Sheridan’s closest political associate for almost two decades. Sheridan was the SSP’s leading public figure, but McCombes was very much the architect of the party’s creation and its key political strategist: if Sheridan delivered the speeches, McCombes provided the content. He is uniquely positioned to offer not simply a ringside perspective, but one from a participant who has been in the ring, and one who has suffered a few sharp blows in the process. McCombes is a talented writer and his accessible account is a highly readable, no-holds barred critique of the actions of a man who he spent much of his life promoting. He opens the foreword by stating, ‘This is a book that I never wanted to write’ and it is not difficult to comprehend why: much of McCombes’ work over the last two decades is in tatters. His is a book rich with personal insights, as much a defence of his role as an account of the events and their political significance. He outlines in great detail the process leading up to and including the defamation action: space precludes a full elaboration here. Central, however, is that, although it was widely discussed inside the SSP, the leadership refused to comment publically on the specific allegations facing Sheridan. They refused, however, to commit perjury to support Sheridan’s false version of events. Prior to 2004, Sheridan was almost universally recognized as the party’s most able public figure, yet McCombes recounts the manner in which Sheridan subsequently cast those who would not cooperate with his fraudulent court action as part of an anti-Sheridan faction that would go to any lengths to frame him. He methodically demolishes the conspiracy theories Sheridan developed during the court case.
The extent of Sheridan’s animosity towards his former comrades was apparent in the defamation action’s immediate aftermath. The Sheridans sold their story to the Scottish tabloids, Sunday Mail and Daily Record with one article headed: ‘I will destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me’, the scabs those, including four MSPs, who refused to lie for him. In suggesting that crossing Sheridan was akin to crossing a picket line, Sheridan seemed to suggest that he had come to embody the movement. In different circumstances one can imagine him having McCombes and others shipped to the gulag. The fallout led Sheridan to establish a new political party, Solidarity: Scotland’s Socialist Movement in 2006, effectively cleaving the Scottish socialist left in two. Of course, the left are past masters in the art of splitting, but it is usually over matters of political substance: this split centred on whether the leader had the right to demand that others commit perjury in order to protect his false public image.
Gall, Research Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire provides a more weighty account of the same material. And published a year or so after McCombes’ account provides more detail on the criminal trial and its aftermath. Its greatest value lies in its exhaustive research and it serves as a generally accurate document of these events. While Sheridan maintains his conspiracy theories, this lengthy laying out of the events provides a thorough rebuttal. A similarly lengthy and detailed accounting of the events supporting Sheridan’s conspiracy theories is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Gall’s book is marred by a few minor factual inaccuracies and, even although he knows he is dealing with a maestro of mendacity, a naïve over-reliance in taking Sheridan’s words at face value – Sheridan initially agreed to assist with the biography until 2006 and quotes from him are included. Gall is also less than convincing when he moves to an analysis of his subject matter’s character. In what he terms a ‘sympathetic’ but not ‘uncritical’ study of the politician’s ‘politics and socio-psychology’, Gall contends that Sheridan constructed a public persona which was as ‘normal’ as possible in order that he could further the socialist movement. In answering the ‘hero or zero’ question posed in the book’s title, Gall contends that he is both and in television appearances coinciding with Sheridan’s release from prison discussed the possibility of Sheridan making a comeback. Giving evidence in 2006, McCombes had described Sheridan as a ‘pathological liar’. It was the first public suggestion that Sheridan suffered from a sociopathic personality disorder, a position that has been developed by other media commentators since. McCombes suggests that this is the only effective explanation for understanding Sheridan’s actions. Gall rejects this position, describing it as ‘a non-materialist analysis’ although he never explains why this must be the case. Rather, Gall contends that Sheridan’s actions stemmed from an inability to weigh accurately the risks involved in the battles that he fought, – that he confronted too many enemies simultaneously. Perhaps it is unintentional, but the implication is that if Sheridan had won the 2010 trial, his strategy would have been vindicated. Are not Sheridan’s actions morally reprehensible, regardless of whether he won, drew or lost?
Speculation on Sheridan’s state of mind is perhaps inevitable, but it will always prove as inconclusive as it is contentious. The gargantuan scale of deceit, the forcefulness with which he pursued his actions, his manipulative powers and his skill for lying extensively in public lend weight to McCombes’ assertions, but we are on safer ground in exploring the details of his actions, rather than their psychological motivation. Take, for instance, Sheridan’s treatment of one of his former sexual partners. Tom Watson recently described the personal toll he suffered arising from his conflict with Murdoch. If he has time, perhaps he should spare a thought for Katrine Trolle. Brought to court against her will, Trolle was cross-examined by Sheridan directly in both 2006 and 2010 (he again sacked his Q. C. during the criminal trial). Sheridan questioned her about their sexual history, which included visits to Cupids with Sheridan, and group sex encounters with him and his brother-in-law, Andrew McFarlane. When she stated that she was embarrassed about her past, but that she was telling the truth, Sheridan, unflinching, brandished her as a perjurer, plotter and gold-digger. I knew that Sheridan had visited Cupids with Trolle because he had told me back in 2005. I still find it astonishing, and enormously dispiriting, that anyone on the left – any decent human being in fact – could justify traducing a young female socialist’s character in the highest courts in the land, not once, but twice, in order to protect the leader’s false reputation. It is noticeable that Trolle, who returned to her native Denmark to escape the opprobrium heaped upon her name, is elided from the narratives, either verbal or written, offered by anyone who attempts to support Sheridan. Some on the left have never had the most developed gender politics, but this took matters to a new level.
The erasure of Trolle is not the only noticeable aspect of written accounts from Sheridan’s supporters. Not one left newspaper sympathetic to Sheridan, including Socialist Worker and The Socialist, states that the allegations against him are false – many of their leading supporters know that they are not – only that he was deserving of support. Why he should be supported rather than Trolle is not explained. Bernando Bertolucci’s Strategia del Ragno/The Spider’s Stratagem, an adaptation of Borges’ short story, The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, charts the theatrical murder of a traitor to the anti-fascist cause and his subsequent lionisation as a hero. In the film, one of the anti-fascists says to the son enquiring of his father’s death, ‘Your father used to say the truth meant nothing … what counts is the consequence of truth.’ For some on the left, Sheridan’s relationship with the truth was unimportant: if it was perceived to be in the interests of the movement to lie, then that was fine, even if those lies involve destroying the reputation of other, less important, members of the movement.
Some of his supporters hide behind the fact that it was Sheridan versus Murdoch so the gloves were off and any tactics were defendable in pursuit of some larger victory. Some maintain a position of blissful, even willful ignorance of the details, knowing that close examination will uncover inconvenient truths. Others were conned. I’d imagine if they could retrace their steps to before Sheridan’s attempted annihilation of the character of Trolle and others, they might have adopted a different position. But the left is not good at admitting that it got it wrong. The result is that many have slipped out of political activity. Those who signed up to support Sheridan in 2006 and are still active are now handcuffed to him as his golden years of political activism slide into the distant past and he pursues different paths. In the period between the two court cases, for instance, Sheridan, seemingly addicted to celebrity glitz, desperately sought media attention. Seemingly high on his initial court success, he hosted The Tommy Sheridan Chat Show at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Introduced to the sound of the Jungle Book’s ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ with its opening ‘I’m the King of the Swingers’ line, he sat on an elevated throne surrounded by tabloid front pages reporting the court case and courted a series of predominantly male celebrity guests. He also had a stint as a celebrity boxer, radio DJ and appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. Although a planned appearance in Jim Davidson’s Sinderella: A Scottish Sex Romp at Glasgow’s Pavillion Theatre did not come to fruition this year, Sheridan’s future appears to lie on the bottom rung of celebrity culture, not at the highest levels of Scottish political life.
Gall is on occasion overly harsh in his criticism of how those in the SSP’s leadership responded to having this out-of-control figure as its leader. Gall was a member of the SSP at the time of the case, but he was not in the position that others were put. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to identify ways in which the SSP might have responded more effectively. Their biggest mistake seems to have been to keep quiet while Sheridan pursued his action. But to be fair to them, few could have envisaged the lengths to which Sheridan would go in order to maintain his false image, and work out an effective strategy for dealing with it.
Gall’s work is relatively unencumbered by references to other academic writing. For a broader readership that might be welcome, but as an academic account it is not as theoretically weighty as it might have been. There is, to cite two examples, no mention of the growing body of academic work on scandal or on the celebritisation of politics the inclusion of which might have allowed Gall to place these events within wider debates. For, although the Sheridan affair has many features rendering it unique, it shares many characteristics with other scandals. John P. Thomson in Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age notes that it is ‘second-order transgressions’ – usually attempts to cover up, lie, commit perjury etc – that are more damaging. Indeed, the revelation of illicit sexual activity need not mark the end of a political career: the standing ovation afforded to John Prescott at the 2006 Labour Party conference, after he admitted to, and apologized for, an affair with his secretary suggests it can be beneficial, if handled skillfully and with a modicum of honesty. A modicum of honesty is the character trait that Sheridan seems to lack and, therefore, the denials will continue, despite what evidence comes to light.
In speculating on Sheridan’s future, the work of the leading film theorist, Richard Dyer, on Hollywood stars may prove useful. Dyer suggests that stardom and charisma are afforded to film stars on the basis of their ability to present a public persona that is perceived to be fully accurate. Public awareness of slippage between the real and the representation can lead to a fall in their perceived ‘star’ quality. Sheridan had mastered the art of creating the image of an authentic, truthful politician characterized by honesty and integrity. Now, with the illusion shattered, he’s revealed as a fraudster, and for increasing numbers cast as a figure of fun; therefore, any political project he is associated with is likely to be doomed, or at least damaged by his involvement.
Unsurprisingly, the Scottish socialist left has suffered. Scandals are toxic and, aside from journalists and lawyers whose bank balances are boosted by them, those that they touch become contaminated. This almost decade-long scandal has certainly destroyed Sheridan, but it has destroyed the political project to which he was attached. In May’s local elections this year, Solidarity, effectively now a small cult, fielded only five candidates in Scotland. Gail Sheridan stood in a seat that Solidarity won in 2007 but came fifth in 2012. Four of Sheridan’s most devoted followers stood elsewhere – but they received derisory votes. In my own ward, Govan, Solidarity received less than one per cent of the vote. Solidarity has as much life in it as a Monty Python parrot. The SSP fielded more candidates and had one councilor elected, but they are barely breathing.
If one looks abroad it is no wonder that Sheridan and his supporters’ actions have angered many on the left. The 11% of the vote afforded to the Left Front in the first round of the 2012 French Presidential elections was considerable, although Sheridan now invites more comparisons with Dominic Strauss Khan than with its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Similarly, the 17% received by the left coalition Syriza in the May 2012 elections in Greece indicates growing support for radical ideas. The SSP, similar in form to both coalitions, achieved significant electoral success in a period of economic boom; they should have been sweeping up in the current economic crisis.
In recent weeks, Sheridan has attempted to capitalize on the Leveson inquiry. Andy Coulson, former NotW Editor and, at the time, Head of Communications at 10 Downing Street, was cited as a defence witness during the 2010 trial, but it was simply part of Sheridan’s smoke and mirrors defence. Following a complaint by Sheridan’s then solicitor, Aamer Anwar, Strathclyde police launched Operation Rubicon, which focuses on allegations of perjury, phone hacking and breach of data protection arising from the trial. If Coulson is found to have presented untruthful evidence at the Sheridan trial, he may be following Sheridan to prison. But legal commentators in Scotland have noted that, given the tangential nature of his evidence to the central perjury charge of which Sheridan was convicted, it will not alter the fact that Sheridan lied in court. Sheridan’s leave to appeal his conviction was rejected by the High Court in June 2011, a decision confirmed by a court of three judges in August of the same year. There is no realistic prospect that anything will happen to alter that fact. In another interesting twist to what has been a remarkable tale, Anwar, a former Socialist Workers Party activist who had previously railed against the Murdoch press, announced that he had taken a position as columnist on Scotland’s Sunday Sun leaving Sheridan in his wake.
Sociologist, John Garrard, notes that scandals are ‘indicator events’, that they reveal much about societal mores. The Sheridan scandal tells us much about contemporary Scottish cultural, legal and political life. Sheridan’s personal flaws, at the very least, excessive hubris, ego and mendacity, were embedded within a cultural flaw – the willingness of significant sections of Scottish political life, not only the socialist movement, to worship at the altar of celebrity at the expense of integrity. The result has been a disaster for everyone involved: once socialist icon, the former King of the Swingers is now King without a Kingdom and the Scottish socialist left is in tatters. As Brecht once observed, ‘unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’
Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes, Birlinn, 326pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 84158 759 2
Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero? A Political Biography by Gregor Gall, Welsh Academic Press, 360pp, £25, ISBN 978 1 86057 119 0