Tycoon’s return to Turnberry demonstrates that Scotland has yet to extricate itself from special relationship with US presidential hopeful
This month Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the US presidential elections and the man described by Hillary Clinton as too dangerous to have the nuclear codes, will set foot on Scottish soil. On the historic Ailsa golf course in Turnberry on the south Ayrshire coast, to be precise. Built in 1873, overlooking a Victorian lighthouse, it is considered one of the most sublime sporting spots in the world. Except it is now known as Trump Turnberry, after the American billionaire purchased it just two years ago for £35 million and gave it a £200m revamp.
“I own it and I am proud of it,” he announced when Turnberry reopened last week. A characteristically brash statement showing off one rich man’s outright land ownership that, considering his record in Scotland let alone on the campaign trail, should bring us out in a collective shudder.
Remember 2014: year of the referendum, Trump’s Turnberry purchase, and the beginning of the end of the relationship between the American tycoon and the Scottish government. (Yes, it really did take that long.) It was a marginally more innocent time, when the thought of Trump, who had just compared a wind farm development near his controversial golf course in Aberdeenshire with the Lockerbie bombing, as a potential future president of the United States was still laughable. A really bad joke, but a joke nonetheless.
Two years on and we are on the brink of another referendum (his visit coincides with the day of the EU result) and Trump as president of the United States is an actual possibility. He will be officially confirmed as Republican nominee at the party convention in July. He might gain access to the nuclear codes after all.
In Scotland, the question is whether we have finally made up our minds about the billionaire who was once wined, dined and courted by successive governments. And if we have, why on earth did it take so long? A spokesperson for Nicola Sturgeon – who increasingly appears to want to distance the SNP from Trump – has said the First Minister has no plans to meet him “on this visit”. The national mood is considerably less qualified and people are furious. Mass protests are planned by anti-racism groups, responding not just to Trump’s touted blanket ban on Muslims entering the US but his long and shameful record of racist outbursts. A broad coalition of campaigners, marching under the banner Scotland Against Trump, is being formed.
Meanwhile, on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire, otherwise known as Trump International Golf Links, locals continue to live with the day-to-day consequences of a golf course that bulldozed its way into being, both metaphorically and actually. A supposedly protected site of scientific interest incorporating the most extensive and dynamic dunes in Britain – the reason why every environmental group going objected to the development – has been destroyed. It is also, just as importantly, the site of people’s homes and lives. People such as Molly, a widow in her nineties who still has no safe and reliable water supply since it was cut off by Trump’s workers six years ago. This should be a source of shame not just to Trump – whose blanket response to any criticism in Scotland appears to be to threaten to withdraw investment – but to the Scottish Government, which not only let it happen, but continues to ignore the impact of having done so.
The tide turned finally in December (yes, it really did take that long), when an online petition to parliament calling for Trump to be denied entry to the UK – started by an Aberdeen local – attracted a record 360,000 signatures in 24 hours. This led to a debate at Westminster and in Scotland to Robert Gordon University revoking Trump’s honorary doctorate awarded in 2010, and Sturgeon stripping Trump of his GlobalScot business ambassador title.
That title was bestowed upon him a decade ago by then Labour First Minister Jack McConnell. Why? Because the rich and all-powerful magnate had his sights set on a beautiful Aberdeenshire estate for a luxury golf resort. The promise, made by Trump and bought into by Alex Salmond and others who saw it as a second coming of oil, was an investment of £1.2 billion and the creation of 6,000 jobs. Today the Menie estate golf course employs just 150 people and has suffered multi-million-pound losses in the past three years.
All of this might lead you to assume that it’s all over between Scotland and Trump. Not so. After all, Trump’s first visit to the UK since coming under attack for his views on Muslims and Mexicans is not to London but to Scotland, where his mother was born on the isle of Lewis. And though Trump has been branded a “dangerous extremist” at Holyrood, the troubled (and publicly owned) Prestwick Airport is still exploring a “strategic alliance” with the presumptive Republican nominee. Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that the only UK media outlet giving voice to Trump’s race for the White House is the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Trump’s first column ran as recently as April under the headline: “How Scotland will help me become president.” In it, Trump went on to claim that “Scotland has already been won – and so will the United States”.
Cue another change.org petition, this one to “scrap Donald Trump’s column”, pointing to the potential conflict of interest arising from the fact, which many will not know, that the editor of the P&J is married to Trump’s PR woman and vice-president of his golf course. It is hard to imagine a Donald Trump column like this running anywhere else in the UK. Or indeed across the Atlantic, where the Washington Times noted that although Trump “has called his American media critics ‘disgusting’ and ‘dishonest’… [he] has had no problem getting his views across in the press, thanks to a small local newspaper in the Scottish Highlands”.
The relationship between Trump and the Scottish Government, in other words, isn’t dead in the water yet. We’re talking about a protracted and rocky marriage, and one that has been nurtured across the political spectrum. In fact, only the Scottish Greens leader, Patrick Harvie, has been consistently critical of Trump, lodging a petition for his GlobalScot title to be removed as long ago as 2012. Perhaps relationships this rooted, this divisive, and this typical of the way contemporary politics operates don’t end overnight. Or over years, for that matter.
The grim truth is that while there are men with big egos waving big wallets, there will be politicians who are seduced by them. Which is why, no matter the outcome of the US presidential race, we must continue to hold both sides of such dubious relationships to account.