Sunday Herald Investigations Editor Paul Hutcheon takes a personal look at a case he covered in depth as he reviews a new book on the downfall of Tommy Sheridan
It could have been so different. At a Scottish Socialist Party executive meeting in November 2004, when Tommy Sheridan should have apologised for attending the Cupids sex club and tendered his resignation as convener, Scotland’s most prominent socialist chose a different path.
Instead of humility, he opted for carnage. Rather than agree to an approach that could have led to an eventual comeback, he embarked on a strategy that led to his incarceration for perjury. His decision to sue the News Of The World over allegations he knew were true was the biggest mistake of his life.
No-one is better qualified than Alan McCombes to write the definitive account of Sheridan’s political demise. While Sheridan was the SSP’s charismatic mouthpiece, McCombes was the fledgling party’s key strategist and brain. Close friends, the pair were instrumental in building one of the most successful European socialist parties of the last 25 years.
Just as crucially, McCombes also had a ringside seat during the SSP’s implosion: he confronted Sheridan about his disastrous plan to sue the News Of The World; he was jailed for defying a court’s instruction to hand over the minutes of the meeting at which Sheridan confessed to being a swinger; and he gave devastating evidence at both the defamation and perjury trials.
Downfall is also brilliantly written. Most tomes on Scottish politics are barely worth reading, but McCombes’s offering deserves to be read far beyond Scotland. Although written by a modest man, the book has a savage turn of phrase and a wonderful repertoire of metaphors.
It contains no dramatic new revelations, but it does not need to. A story that involves sex, lies, two court cases, destroyed reputations, a political civil war and eventual imprisonment is a narrative that needs no commercial embellishment. If the author had submitted the material as a work of fiction, the publisher would have rejected it on the grounds of it being too fanciful. McCombes simply stitches together the facts to reveal the full horror of Sheridan’s actions over the past six years.
The book’s key strength is the way it unpicks the manufactured complexity of the Sheridan saga. The biggest lie McCombes exposes is that the post-2004 events, triggered by Sheridan’s defamation action against the Murdoch red top, were all about “politics”.
Not so. The truth, says McCombes, is that he, Sheridan, and the rest of the SSP members who testified in the 2006 defamation action had little or no political disagreements. As the author argues, Sheridan’s political opponents prior to November 2004 were the SSP factions that opportunistically supported him throughout his kamikaze court adventures. The “politics” explanation was an invented distraction.
The key factor of the last six years, McCombes points out, was Sheridan’s deranged psychology. It was about one man trying to keep a lid on the secret sexual double life he was hiding from his wife, mother and “adoring” public. The issue at stake, McCombes argues, was “a deeper, more fundamental morality”.
McCombes also demolishes the idea that you are either on the side of Sheridan or the News Of The World. The real choice, the writer makes clear, was between telling the truth in court or committing perjury. Any other suggestion played up to the ridiculous notion that defending Tommy was part of some sort of class struggle.
Once McCombes removes the reader’s blinkers, the remainder of his compelling, fact-based argument is clear: Sheridan is a man who will say anything, or do anything, to protect the false reputation he has built.
The bulk of this superb book confirms the Sheridan roll-call of shame. He pursued a defamation action to contest allegations he knew were true; he tried to get colleagues to lie for him, and trashed their reputations when they refused; he circulated calls to destroy evidence on his parliamentary email account; and shadowy figures linked to him tried to intimidate witnesses. He was, in one of McCombes’s memorable phrases, “Tommy the Terminator”.
Those closest to him were little more than human shields. In court, he used his mother’s cancer, his wife’s late pregnancy and his daughter’s vulnerability as props with which to manipulate two sets of jurors.
McCombes is particularly strong in challenging Sheridan’s insistence that he had never stepped inside Cupids. For this to be true, says McCombes, then the six people who placed him in the club, as well as the two dozen individuals who said on oath that he had confessed to attending the club, were all lying. That’s some conspiracy.
Sheridan’s parallel descent from respected MSP to what McCombes describes as “pathetic court jester” is also expertly chronicled. Where once Sheridan played a heroic role in protesting against the poll tax, losing his Holyrood seat in 2007 propelled him into the world of telling sexist jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe, and degrading himself on Celebrity Big Brother. It was on this Channel 4 goon-fest that McCombes quotes Sheridan saying: “Golf is a game for pussies. Eighteen holes and not a hair on any of them.”
On a personal level, Downfall has not altered my own unshakeable conclusions about the 2004-10 disaster: that while McCombes is a man of unimpeachable integrity, Sheridan is the most despicable politician I have ever encountered.
His biggest sin was the way he betrayed the people he supposedly entered politics to help by destroying his own political party. At a time when the global banking system was close to collapse, Sheridan instead persisted in pursuing a fantasy that led to a prison cell. In this regard, at least Downfall has a happy ending.
Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan mcCombes,