“Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat”
JOHN PAUL SARTRE
A case such as that of Tommy Sheridan’s 2010 trial for perjury will generate interest for years to come. Witnesses called to the High Court in Glasgow included the Scottish editor of the News of the World, the Prime Minister’s chief spin doctor, three self-confessed swingers and five former MSPs.
Since that cold January morning when Sheridan was sentenced to three years in jail, the world has seen Arab revolutions; a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan; and of course our own political earthquake: the SNP’s landslide victory in the recent Scottish election.
Yet it is clear that the first so-called insider account of the case, Downfall – The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes, will be among this year’s most talked-about books. The title is however a misnomer, being more the Alan McCombes story than anything else.
Nevertheless, the writer insists he was the “closest political associate of Sheridan for 20 years and co-writer (or sole writer as he claims) of Sheridan’s book Imagine”. So he knows his subject.
The introduction bears the legend: “This book is not about settling scores. I have tried to describe what happened with calm and restraint.”
The extent to which McCombes comes over all calm and restrained can be measured using this, not atypical, extract: “Whatever anger I might have had in the past towards Tommy had gone, to be replaced with a mixture of pity and contempt. This was a man without remorse, without heart, without soul. His socialism was skin-deep, his compassion as phoney as canned laughter. Strip away the pious words and the practised facial expressions and you were left with a zombie.”
Elsewhere in the book McCombes describes Sheridan as a “rampaging egomaniac”, a “disordered personality”, “damaged goods”, a “political gangster”, a “man without basic human decency” and, let us not ignore, an “abuser of women”.
McCombes argues that not only did Sheridan perjure himself, apparently inflicting “more damage to the left in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch combined”, but also that Sheridan’s greatest achievements were not victories of his but were victories achieved instead by the author and Sheridan’s “comrades”. We’re talking here about the fight against the hated poll tax; the abolition of warrant sales; and the wholly unprecedented electoral success for the radical left.
Nevertheless, Downfall grudgingly acknowledges Sheridan’s talents as an “articulate and inspirational figurehead” for the working class, although it quickly adds: “original thinking was never his great strength.”
In a similar vein, an admission that Sheridan was “an outstanding orator” is qualified by the claim that McCombes himself had written Sheridan’s “key” speeches made in the Scottish Parliament because “writing had never been Tommy’s strong point”.
To Alan McCombes’s Sheridan had the “matinee-idol looks of a Hollywood star, the vocal powers of a Christian fundamentalist preacher and the persuasive techniques of a door-to-door salesman”, and “a talent for quickfire soundbites” but seemingly little else.
However, the rough edge of McCombes’s pen bristles against not just Sheridan. Downfall tells the reader that Sheridan has no supporters, but “rabid disciples” who launch a “ghastly, shrieking orchestra of hate” against poor McCombes and his loyal colleagues.
At one meeting, McCombes writes, Sheridan was a “latter-day Christ, flanked by a posse of apostles”, while those who testified in court for the defence were “broken men and women, ready to publicly debase themselves and their party because they were too weak to resist a more powerful personality”.With these bitter declarations, which are repeated throughout the book, the reader can rest assured that the writer was recounting events with “calm and restraint”.
IF Downfall is an accurate account. McCombes must then answer a serious question: if Sheridan was merely a fame-seeking, empty suit with no political talent other than the ability to dazzle the unwary, why then did the author and his party “plaster Tommy’s face and name on countless millions of leaflets and hundreds of thousands of posters” and “inflate Tommy’s abilities and exaggerate his role”?
The only answer given reads thus: “Focusing on an individual keeps things simple for the media and makes it easier to connect with people, but we went too far.”
Most puzzling is McCombes’s account of the political partnership between him and Sheridan. He claims “no trace of acrimony” between the two until 2004 and insists Sheridan confessed to him in late 2002 that he had indeed visited Cupids sex club in Manchester.
While Sheridan engaged in the “exploitation of women for his own personal gratification”, McCombes happily covered them up, telling no one, despite a “gnawing fear that this might come back to haunt them”.
Indeed not only did McCombes willingly hide this “hypocrisy” from other members of his party as well as the SSP voters in the Scottish election of 2003, but he was happy to do so in such a way that his relationship with Sheridan was never strained. This is difficult to believe.
Downfall’s account of the lengthy perjury trial last year runs to just 20 pages. Unsurprisingly, prosecution witnesses appear as paragons of the truth, unfairly slandered, while defence witnesses are packaged as obvious liars, their evidence “incredible” and “suspicious”.
Perhaps unwittingly, Downfall seems to confirm suggestions made by the defence during the perjury trial: SSP witnesses were not just testifying to what they claimed was true but that they were actively seeking to have Sheridan convicted.
One revealing passage reads: “[We] were clear in our own minds what we had to do. During the defamation case we had been reluctant witnesses, the legal equivalent of a work to rule. Now we knew we were up against Tommy the Terminator, a man quite prepared to orchestrate the biggest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history. This would be a no-holds-barred fight to the finish.”
McCombes furnishes the reader with no details on what was involved in this “fight to the finish”. Instead, he is coy in relation to his role in how a major piece of evidence came to be presented in court. This gives us a clue about the said fight to the finish.
Downfall presents the story of how handwritten notes from the disputed SSP executive meeting of 9 November came to the attention of the police, once the 2006 defamation trial had ended: “Barbara Scott, the SSP minutes secretary, was also on a mission. One way of clearing her name would be to track down the original handwritten notes. They would reveal more detail about what had been said at that now-infamous meeting. When she found the notes she marched into the headquarters of Lothian and Borders Police to hand over this new piece of evidence.”
McCombes however neglects to mention that Scott had testified in court that she had not “found” the notes but that McCombes himself had handed them to her just before the 2006 trial.
During his cross-examination of Scott, Paul McBride QC (acting for Gail Sheridan) made much of Scott’s claim that she had given evidence in 2006 with these notes “in her handbag”, asking her why, if she had that evidence all along, she had not shared it with the court.
By conveniently omitting his own role in concealing the notes from the court in 2006, McCombes avoids the same question being asked of him. If he knew about this “vital evidence” why then did he not disclose it to anyone at the time? Why wait until the trial was over?
Another useful sleight of hand in Downfall’s incomplete account of the perjury trial is the glaring contradiction between McCombes’s insistence that he confronted Sheridan over his visit to Cupids in 2001 and the Crown, the police and other witnesses placing the event as having taken place in September 2002.
McCombes does not take refuge in the excuse of witnesses Katrine Trolle and Anvar Khan, in that that they got their dates mixed up. Instead he argues: “In the period spanning November 2001 to September 2002 Tommy visited Cupids not once but twice or more. There is no doubt in my mind that he was in Cupids on the weekend beginning Friday 23 November 2001.”
No evidence to back this novel claim is supplied, other than McCombes’s unconvincing nod and a wink that this was a “rumour circulating in media circles”. Downfall makes no attempt to explain why, if the claim was true, not a single shred of supporting evidence was uncovered by a police investigation costing £5 million and 40,000 hours of time.
Downfall is not completely without merit. On one level it is the definitive account of one side of the Tommy Sheridan story, providing non-sourced revelations for the lack of forensic evidence presented during the case.
The book’s terminal failure comes partly from its portrait of Sheridan as a shallow, intellectual midget, compared with McCombes, sitting in stark contrast to the principled, politician that many us remember. Sheridan may have had his detractors but none that I recall ever questioned his intellect.
Indeed, in court defending himself, Sheridan achieved victory in one case and came close to winning the perjury case itself, being found guilty by a minority of the jury. As the trial went on, even the legal professionals became impressed by how competently Sheridan had mastered the facts of the case and, indeed, how he presented his own defence (presumably without the so-called writing skills of McCombes).
Downfall symbolises the Manichean view of the case: good versus evil, light versus darkness. According to Downfall, no person who defended Sheridan did so for good reason: they were either stunningly naive or self-serving plotters. Those who testified against him, even those who were paid to do so, were credible, believable even. No middle ground, no shades of grey are even considered.
Those who followed the trial closely might enjoy the book, there are some interesting details given about the case which were not revealed in court. But I would argue that the definitive work on the “trial of the century” has yet to be written.