Defeat for the SSP - what went wrong?

Steve Freeman

SSP members went into the court of sessions without any political plan. Defeat for the party was almost inevitable.

The Scottish Daily Record carries an interview with Tommy Sheridan about the “trial of the decade”. He makes a number of points about the aftermath of his trial. He says he is determined to win control of the Scottish Socialist Party, which stands “on the precipice of either a great new beginning or virtual oblivion” (August 7).

He is “not in favour of expulsions, even though I consider those who lined up with broad smiles on their faces as they entered the court to be political scabs”. But he is in favour of ousting (some of) them from leading positions. He says: “There is no way I would be convenor of a party with its apparatus controlled by those who have tried to undermine me.”

Sheridan believes the SSP can be a force again. He sketches out a strategic line - economic justice, public ownership and public services; a rejection of illegal wars and illegal nuclear weapons; and “an independent Scotland”. He plants his flag on the strategic ground “still there to be occupied … I hope that it is the SSP who raises those ideas successfully in 2007.”

There can be no “great new beginning” without a clarification of the strategic line of the party, without honest accounting of the mistakes the party has made, and without a fight for party unity. All those who want to see the SSP survive should address those issues.

A Socialist Alliance delegation attended the last SSP conference and spoke with Francis Curran, Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes and Colin Fox about building links with the SSP. At the conference two strategies were discussed. One seemed to put emphasis on “Scottish independence” and a possible alliance with the SNP as the road to Scottish socialism. The alternative put emphasis on a “Scottish republic” and the need for building links with the English working class. These can be labelled roughly as ‘nationalist’ and ‘republican-internationalist’.

There are now two main platforms in the SSP, both reflecting the current crisis - the SSP Majority and the United Left. The Republican Communist Network has maintained an independent stance. Any serious recovery plan must get to grips with the strategic direction of the party. This is particularly important if it is not to be frozen into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Sheridan factions. Raising the debate over strategy, as Sheridan does himself, is crucial if the party is to return to politics and away from personalities.
The second part of any recovery plan is to analyse what mistakes the party made over this court battle. The Daily Record talks of “a bitter feud at the heart of the SSP with 11 senior figures, including leader Colin Fox, giving evidence against Sheridan”. If this had been a bitter feud between the ‘nationalists’ and the ‘republican-internationalists’ then it would have made sense. But it was not.

The RCN platform advocates a ‘republican-internationalist’ strategy and is affiliated to the new Socialist Alliance. Having read the RCN statement on the court case, I am generally in agreement with it. Two major issues stand out for me. First, what line did the SSP put to the working class and then take into court? Second, did the party tell the working class the truth before it went into the court and if not, why not? These questions go to the heart of what went wrong.

There is no issue of principle with the party taking its campaigns into bourgeois courts or parliaments. It is a matter of tactics. There are basically two reasons why the party might go to court. First, the party is conducting a campaign in the working class and decides tactically to use the court as a platform. Second, the party is forced to go to court to defend itself or its members.

Bourgeois courts are dangerous places in which to conduct the class struggle. The class enemy has written the rules and appoints its judges to referee. We should not enter them lightly. We should not create illusions in them or expectations of anything other than class-based justice. The key thing is to use the court to raise working class consciousness about the party and its aims. It is possible for a party to ‘win’ even if the verdict is wrong, provided the working class is persuaded of the party case. The party cannot be afraid of conducting class struggle in court. We have to fight in the society we are in, not the one we would like to be in.

Here, however, we have a peculiar set of circumstances. The SSP did not run a campaign in the working class and carry it into the court. On the contrary, it ran no campaign and decided tactically not to go to court. It was Tommy Sheridan who went as a private citizen. That is his right. But he was not adopting party tactics. He went against what the party advised him. The party was not in court. Other individual SSP members went there reluctantly, if not against their will.

The ‘Tommy Sheridan case’ was not an SSP case. This is a formally correct truth that may have affected party psychology. How could the party turn up with its boxing gloves on if it was not there? But the fiction of the absent party did not reflect the real situation. In reality the ghost of a party was present, without any weapons and no battle plan.

It is a big mistake for the party to find itself in court without an independent campaigning position of its own, without a party line to put to the working class. If we wanted to invent a more disastrous scenario for the party to find itself in court, we would be hard pushed to think of one.

The SSP was opposed to this court case. However, once Tommy Sheridan had decided to go to court, the SSP should have either backed him or, on the other extreme, taken disciplinary action against him. That would have been the hard line, but in reality nobody wanted to toss Sheridan to the wolves.

The only alternative was for the party to back him - but independently, in an honest and democratic, partyist way. The starting point was to tell the working class the truth, as the party knew it - warts and all. What individual members know is one thing. But what the party knew was contained in the so-called ‘secret’ executive minute. The saga of these minutes tells us much about what was wrong with the SSP.
Whether Tommy Sheridan did or did not go to sex clubs is not a party matter. I agree with the RCN statement which says we have “no interest in the sexual preferences or behaviour of consenting adults. We will not moralise over someone’s sex life. It is only the business of the party if any form of exploitation has been used or if the comrade is acting hypocritically”. This is surely a statement the party should have made to the working class before the court case.

The party does not ‘know’ whether Sheridan went to sex clubs and does not care, so long as the conditions above are satisfied. The party only ‘knows’ what Sheridan told the November 9 2004 executive. No executive members or MSPs were direct witnesses. It is conceivable that Sheridan under pressure admitted something he did not do. But Sheridan says he never admitted this and the minutes were concocted as part of a political move against him. This is at the heart of the bitter recriminations and ramifications which are still being worked out.

The key thing was to have a party line and put that line to the working class before carrying it into the court. But that requires an open and full party debate on all the issues. The members and the working class must be fully informed of the issues and the facts. Instead the leadership decided on a damage-limitation exercise. This was fatal, since it is easier to conceal things from the working class than from a court backed by the powers of the state.

This takes us to a major weakness of the SSP - the question of openness. The SSP has inherited a trace of the culture of secrecy from Stalinism and Trotskyism. Revolutionary parties, especially in conditions of illegality, have to keep certain matters secret - for example, names or details of illegal operations. This hardly applies to a legal party like the SSP, although members’ names and addresses should be secure. But political arguments and information should not be concealed.

Every party has its own internal life. Comrades wish to thrash things out with their comrades or float ideas before going public. Even the CPGB, which has an open culture, still has its own internal discussions. This is not public, but neither is it private. There should be no barrier to internal arguments being laid out publicly. There should be a presumption for openness and not against it. If platforms are allowed, then platforms will openly discuss such matters anyway. Preventing open expression of views and information is no different to banning platforms.

The Stalinist and Trotskyist post-1921 view of ‘democratic centralism’ has an assumption against openness. There is a presumption against ‘washing our dirty linen’ in front of the working class or keeping workers informed about our political disagreements. Inner-party discussion on these matters took on the character of hush-hush meetings, in which party members could not tell non-members what it was all about. Party information was replaced by rumour and counter-rumour. The working class would have to wait for the court case to find out what was going on. This reached it zenith in the so-called ‘secret minutes’ of the November 9 2004 SSP executive.

These minutes are party property. They belong to the party membership. As soon as it was clear the SSP would have to go to court, they should have been published - first internally for verification and to inform the members. If the content was disputed, this could be argued inside the party rather than in the court. Then they should have been published in Scottish Socialist Voice.

The only way the party could have conducted its fight in the court was by preparing the members and the working class movement with the facts and the issues. In these conditions ‘secrecy’ can only mean secrecy from the members and the working class. It would be very difficult to keep facts from the court, given its powers. The attempt at concealment would likely be bravado, followed by capitulation. What would the wider working class learn from this? That the party tries to hide the truth, but only bourgeois courts can be relied to extract it? Nothing could be worse than putting the party in this position.

The party first decided to refuse to hand over these minutes. Alan McCombes should be praised for his courage in defying the court. But it was ultimately a futile gesture. Worse, it gave the courts the opportunity to send the police fishing through party files.

What was the motive for this secrecy? Presumably to protect Tommy Sheridan from what the minutes said. Was protecting him given a higher priority than protecting the party? What was the national executive - a society for protecting its own members? The failure to publish the executive minutes and the attempt to conceal them reveal something rotten in the thinking of the SSP leadership - appearing to put self-preservation of one of its members before telling the party the truth about the EC meeting.
These mistakes relate to the handling of the allegations about sex clubs. If the party was divided over this, was there anything the party could unite around? Was there a campaigning message the party could take to the working class and into the court? Surely the central issue is the Murdoch press. If the News of the World wants to talk about sex, the SSP wants to talk about Murdoch and his billions.

When The Sun attacked the working class of Liverpool after the Hillsborough disaster, there was a massive reaction against that paper that cost them dear. The SSP should have been honest about what the party knew. But the main issue was a politically motivated attack by the NOTW against the SSP before the general election. The links between the government, Murdoch and the attack on workers’ pay and democratic rights should have been the central theme of every party witness.

The NOTW is a disgusting part of the gutter press. It is thoroughly anti-working class. It is used to make scandalous and scurrilous attacks, including lies and half-truth on anybody if Murdoch or his minions decides this serves their interests. This so-called scandal was brought up before the general election as an attempt to damage the SSP because of its determined support for working people. There are plenty of examples to bring to the attention of the jury and the working class.

The SSP should have set its own objectives, using the opportunity of the court case to attack the capitalist press. This would have helped Sheridan and should have united the party. The SSP should have campaigned politically against this scandal rag. Perhaps a picket outside the court against the gutter press? Should it be closed down or taken into public ownership under workers’ control? There is widespread hostility to the gutter press, their lies and hypocrisy. In this way the party could have gone on the offensive against Murdoch and Blair.

As far as I can tell, this was the kind of line that Sheridan ran. If the jury were not sure who was telling the truth they had to choose between Tommy and Murdoch (and Blair). They decided to support the former. Contempt for the gutter press is widespread amongst working people. No wonder the NOTW was shocked at the verdict. They have no idea how much people hate them and would enjoy the opportunity to punish them to the tune of £200,000. Even if the NOTW had told the truth, the jury was still able to see beyond truth and settle for justice.

I think the SSP could have had this line without anybody being required to tell lies about what Tommy Sheridan did or did not say. The main thing for SSP members was to find the way to tell the jury that the behaviour of papers like the NOTW had to be stopped and their decision was vital in making the paper behave. SSP members would be able to say nothing more damaging about Sheridan than what was in the already published party minutes.

As far as I can tell from the outside, the SSP did not really have a line. Without its own independent campaign the SSP could not win. So I agree with the verdict of the RCN, which says: “The one big loser in the Tommy Sheridan v The News of the World libel case has been the Scottish Socialist Party.”


Steve Freeman is a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Group



August 2006

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