frontline vol. 2 issue 2.

Lessons Learned and Looking to the future

An Interview with Alan McCombes

Alan McCombes is the Scottish Socialist Party’s Press and Policy Co-ordinator and a member of the SSP Executive Committee. Along with Keith Baldassara, he brought Tommy Sheridan’s behaviour to the attention of the Executive in November 2004. Alan was jailed for four days in May 2006 for defying the courts and refusing to hand over the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting that voted for Tommy Sheridan to stand down as convenor. Alan spoke to Pam Currie about the recent crisis in the SSP and the SSP’s prospects in 2007 and beyond.

“The one criticism [of the EC] that I think would have some validity is that we should have been more open about the decision that we took from the beginning. It was difficult, you cannot anticipate what lies ahead, especially several years down the line, and if we had had the foresight to see where this would end up, then perhaps we would have done things differently.

The only thing I would have done differently would have been to publish the minutes from the beginning. At that time we acted in good faith, we were trying to protect people, people’s privacy, and under the circumstances at that time, that was the call we made. It’s only with having seen the court case and the outcome of the court case - the grotesque spectacle of the Executive of the party being accused of a frame-up, of the ‘mother of all stitch-ups’, being accused of a conspiracy to topple Tommy Sheridan - stuff that we would never, ever have believed in our wildest nightmares would ever have come to pass, but it did, with the benefit of that experience, then we can look back and say maybe we should have been more open.

There would have been a messy response at the time, I think… it would have caused difficulties politically, it would have caused individuals personal difficulties, but I think historically it would have allowed us to move on at a much earlier stage.

Those that say we shouldn’t have kept minutes, I think it’s quite a bizarre accusation. As it happens I was reading a book recently, The Secret History of the IRA, by one of the top investigative journalists in Northern Ireland, a guy called Ed Maloney, and I was quite amused to read one of the chapters, around the late 1980s, Martin McGuinness, who was allegedly then one of the serious figures in the IRA, argued within the Army Council for a Christmas ceasefire. Other people in the Army Council argued that the Army Council can’t agree a Christmas ceasefire, it would need a full Army Convention, which would mean a conference of hundreds before they could call a Christmas ceasefire.

There was then a dispute over a meeting which had taken place a few years before and what had been decided, whether the Army Council had the right to call a ceasefire or whether it had to be the Army Convention, and they decided to resolve the dispute by dispatching somebody to the secret documents dump that was held by the IRA - with the same sensitivity as their weapons dump - so there you have the Army Council of the IRA minuting meetings where they’re deciding whether to have a bombing campaign, or to have a ceasefire, and people in our own party are saying we’re not allowed to take minutes because it involves somebody’s personal life!

I think it’s preposterous the idea that we shouldn’t have minutes, minutes are a vital historical record. You don’t need to minute everything but when you take a major decision which is going to have long term consequences for the socialist movement, then it’s a question of historical accountability, you need to be prepared to explain that decision, and I think that’s been underlined by the events of the last few months.

If there hadn’t been minutes taken, there would have been three, four, five different versions of events begun to circulate, and it then becomes a question of whoever shouts the loudest, or whoever expresses their interpretation of events with the most sincere expression on their face, becomes believed, and others don’t become believed - that is no way to run anything, certainly not a serious political party. We took a very important decision, and it was important that we recorded not only the decision but the reasons for the decision. I think events recently have justified that decision, and I think that the decision itself was absolutely right.

I would say that anybody who might have had doubts about the decision at the time, I think that subsequent events have shown that we took the decision that we had to take. It was a serious situation and we took the necessary steps to try and deal with it at the time.

Criticisms have been levelled at the EC from some quarters only very latterly - they were never raised at the time - neither the existence of the minutes nor the fact that the minutes were maintained confidentially were raised by anybody in the party at the time, we had umpteen National Councils and nobody at any of these National Councils tabled a resolution, no letters were written by branches or individuals asking us to reconsider the retention of minutes, it was only when this crisis emerged.

I think frankly some people panicked, panicked at the idea that a political party should be dragged into a court case by the state, and lashed out. The problem was they lashed out in the wrong direction, they should have been lashing out at the person who dragged us into that position in the first place.

I am surprised that [Tommy] left so readily, without putting up any serious fight to establish his position within the SSP. I think from his point of view and from the point of view of those who’ve left the party they’ve made a massive tactical, strategical blunder - they’re headed, in my view, for oblivion.

I’m very relieved, I suppose, and very optimistic, that the nature of the split, the speed at which it happened and the limited scale of the split has left the SSP pretty much intact.


If you had said to me six months ago, four months ago, that Tommy would fight this libel action, he would win this libel action, he would denounce his comrades in the intemperate language that he did in the media, that he would leave the party, set up a new party, I would have expected it to have been much more damaging.

There is an assumption that splits are always going to be destructive, and they can be destructive - there’s no question, if you look at the history of the socialist movement or any other political movement, that splits can be destructive.

The Communist Party, for example, was comparatively strong right up until the 1980s - they split in 1987 and were reduced to the status of a collection of small sectlets. They also suffered from the subsequent destruction of the Soviet Union, and they’ve never recovered. When I first got involved in politics and for a long time afterwards [the Communist Party] were the dominant force in the trade unions and also had an influence inside the Labour Party, they never had a major electoral base but at one stage they had more members in Glasgow than the Labour Party had, but that was reduced almost to dust as the result of the split, so that’s an example of a split that was utterly destructive.

But there are other examples where it’s had a much less serious effect and even, in a kind of paradoxical way, it’s even had an effect of giving organisations new leases of life. I’m thinking for example of the split which took place in the late 90s in Italy within Rifondazione, where there was quite a significant split, where a major section of its Parliamentary group and a major section of the party broke away, a right wing split as it happened.

But that allowed a surge of development of Rifondazione towards the Left. A new leadership emerged, some of the baggage that the party had continued to carry forward from its origins in the Communist Party began to be thrown aside, and the party achieved a dynamism which may or may not continue - there’s problems now, political questions about the direction that they’re headed in - but for a big period of time following the split it actually evolved in a very healthy direction.

The split in the SSP will have a negative impact, there’s no question about that, in the sense that we’ll have fewer activists, particularly in some of the outlying areas of Scotland, the Highlands, the South of Scotland, and there’s a financial consequence, but I think that there’s also an opportunity now for us to move forward at a faster pace than we were able to move before.

I do think that some of the forces which probably took advantage of the crisis to exit the SSP had begun to act as a dead weight in the party. It was very difficult, for example, to introduce any new ideas, any new methods - immediately the shutters would be put up by big sections of the party.

The SSP had broken all the rules. It was a revolutionary experiment that worked. We introduced open elections, secret ballots, open debates at Conferences, allowed groups to organise as platforms, and completely broke the old culture of the Left, particularly in the UK, turned it upside down and inside out - and it was very dynamic, in that early phase of development. But I think that since sometime around about 2002, 2003, the SSP’s been stuck in the mud.

It’s not been able to evolve certainly as fast as I would have liked to have seen. New innovative methods have had to be shelved, discussion has had to be postponed, for the sake of keeping things together, and I think sometimes that’s necessary, but sometimes it can hold back the dynamism of a political party. I think that we now have the opportunity of instead of year by year slogging it out, the same old debates that we’ve had year in, year out, we’ve got an opportunity to draw a line under some aspects of the past, maintain all of the best ingredients that have gone into the construction of the SSP, but to be quite bold and experimental in our thinking and be prepared to push out the boundaries. Sometimes you do that and it doesn’t work out, but I think it’s better to be dynamic and try to move forward than just to be stuck in a rut and that’s what I think this split might allow us to do.

As I see it now, I think at least 80% of the membership have stuck with the SSP, three quarters of the branches have stuck with the SSP, almost all of the bigger branches in our heartland areas have stuck with the SSP.

As for Solidarity, I think that this is a Kilroy-Silk type of party. If you remember, in 2005, amid a massive fanfare of publicity, Kilroy-Silk, a major UK-wide celebrity, launched a new party, had far greater publicity UK-wide than anything Solidarity have managed to achieve in Scotland, and within a matter of months that had virtually sunk without trace. I don’t think that Solidarity is going to be a serious obstacle to the SSP. Initially I was concerned that it might gather support under false pretences, but the more I’ve heard reports from within the party about what people are saying, not only the reaction of the membership of the party but also, importantly, of the supporters of the party, outside, who’re not members but SSP voters, then the more confident I am that the vast majority of our support base will stick with the SSP electorally as well, and I really do think that Solidarity will have serious problems ahead.

Solidarity is an unprincipled organisation, it’s not based on any political ideology, it’s based on a lie and a fraud. Some people have joined with the best of intentions, out of loyalty, because they’ve been duped, because they still do not fully understand the issues, for whatever reason - they haven’t fully grasped, in my opinion, all the issues, and they fear being in a party without Tommy Sheridan.

But others I think have cynically exploited the crisis in the SSP in order to get out of the SSP. The Socialist Workers Party have for a long time had itchy feet, they’ve looked at London with envious eyes, at Respect - that’s the type of organisation I think that they would like to be part of. It’s more diffuse, which might seem attractive to some people, but essentially means that there’s no democratic accountability, particularly over the leadership of the organisation. They’ve had this, I think, romantic idea that they could replicate that experience in Scotland - a very locally successful experience that they’ve had in some parts of inner city London - and I’m not clear at all that they will still be involved with Solidarity come the May 2007 elections.

You’ve also got other groups like the CWI, who I think have made a colossal blunder. There are some reasonable people in the CWI in Scotland but I think it’s dismally led, their judgement is appalling, and I think they’ve now boxed themselves in to an organisation which I think they’re going to find disastrous to work in. They’re going to be looking back to the halcyon days when were able to operate as an open platform in the SSP, in a socialist party, a class struggle party that has had sizeable support in the wider population, and they’ve cut themselves off from that, and become embroiled in a swamp which is going to be dominated by the SWP.

For the SSP, we’ve got a Conference coming up, but because of the two years that we’ve come through, and especially the last four or five month period, I think it’s important that we have a period of a bit of calm, a bit of stability now within the party, in preparation for making the most effective intervention we can in the 2007 elections.

Right now I’d like us to deal with what we have to deal with, any changes that we absolutely need to make now, but as a general rule I would be in favour of us having a period where we’re turning the party outwards again, that we’re beginning to engage with our own supporters.

New Approaches

Beyond May 2007, I think we need a whole root and branch assessment of the experience of the first eight or nine years of the SSP, what we’ve done right, where we’ve made mistakes, which problems we have to address, what shortcomings we have to rectify, what is broken and has to be fixed, or replaced. I would be reluctant to pre-empt that discussion and be prescriptive just now, what I think is most important is that we have that discussion rather than we all start throwing in ‘I think this, that and the next thing’.

But just to provide one concrete example, I had proposed a year or two back that we carry out a radical decentralisation of the party, because I felt that the Executive and the National Council was clogged up, we were involved in a vast array of fields of work, externally, the internal organisation was becoming bigger, more complex, that we were involved in all sorts of campaigns, elections, media work, producing a newspaper, trying to grapple with problems of political education.

We had some networks in the party, like the Women’s Network, and what I was trying to raise at that time was that we try to decentralise the party and have a much more horizontal structure, with a whole new chain of networks or forums created to deal with the politics, and the organisation of the SSP. That would have, I think, have involved a lot more people in the party directly, it would have broken down the geographical barriers that quarantine one branch or region from another. It would have allowed people to develop their interests, to develop their talents, to get involved, and all of that, of course, would be subject to the normal democratic constraints and procedures in the party - any significant decisions would still be the property of the party as a whole.

We’ve got a lot of talent in the SSP but we need to find ways of harnessing that talent and involving people, not just coming across to their branch to get fed some bits and pieces of information and then to get sent out on stalls, but to encourage them to add their knowledge and expertise and talent into the pool that exists within the SSP as a whole, and to turn the SSP into a much more dynamic party as a result.

There still are a lot of SSP supporters still out there, and that’s been shown by recent opinion polls, and we have to try to drive into new territory, young people especially, people who have not voted in the past. We need to make a big, big turn in the next 7 or 8 months the hundreds of thousands of people who are either previous SSP voters, existing SSP supporters or potential SSP supporters, and I think that’s what we need to be preoccupied with between now and May 2007.


The polls suggest that the 2007 election could be turning point in Scottish politics. Some of the polls have shown a majority now in favour of independence; support for independence, based on the same polling system, has doubled since 2000, and you have now the prospect of the SNP becoming the biggest single party [in Parliament].

What’s clear to me is that even if there’s not an outright majority for independence, there’s going to be a big, big momentum, a big, big rise in support for independence, and that’s going to be reflected in the Parliament.

Other political parties are going to be under massive pressure to support a referendum on independence as a basic democratic right.

The Lib Dems, Labour, the Tories, have all ruled out an independence referendum even if the people of Scotland vote for it by electing pro-independence parties in 2007, which I think is an outrageous flouting of democracy, and it shows that that element of national oppression is still something that we have to confront.

The idea that parties which draw their support in the main from outside Scotland should use that support in Westminster to block that referendum even if the people of Scotland vote democratically for it, it’s effectively denying the right of Scotland to self-determination.

I think there is going to be a big momentum in the direction of independence in the years between 2007 and 2011, and I think that in turn will have a massive politicising effect on the population of Scotland generally, it will open up big new sections of the population to the ideas of radical change in society; our goal of an independent socialist republic will become more and more popular in the years after 2007. What is important for us, I think, is that we keep a base in that Parliament, even if it’s a reduced base, and we may have the possibility of retaining what we’ve got. We’ve got the chance of a breakthrough in the North East of Scotland because of the candidate, the support that John McAllion has in the city of Dundee, we’ve got a strong chance of keeping one MSP in Glasgow, maintaining our position in Central Scotland and in Lothian, based on the personal track records of Colin and Carolyn, and Rosie in Glasgow, and I think we’ve got a chance of retaining a seat in the West of Scotland.

If we could even hold 2, 3 or 4 seats in 2007 and make a breakthrough in the Council elections, then that keeps us in the public eye, it keeps us afloat as a serious political party that the media are paying attention to, that have got a national profile, and that’s important.

I do think there are going to be big changes in the political terrain nationally across Scotland, which is going to lead to a rising tide of politicisation, and I think if we can keep a base in Holyrood, we’re going to be able to take advantage of that in that four year period, and it’s going to be a much more fruitful period for socialism and especially for our specific programme of an independent socialist republic than has been the case between 2003 and 2006/07.

Interview with Alan McCombes conducted 21/9/06