Insight: How Scots leaders fell for Donald Trump
In the restaurant stood Jack McConnell, waiting to be introduced. But Trump had caught sight of a news reporter and brushed past the First Minister in his haste to reach the camera. “Do you want to interview me now?” Trump demanded.
Later, over lunch, as Trump told McConnell and representatives of Scottish Development International about his desire to invest in a multi-million-pound golf and leisure complex in Scotland, the First Minister spotted something in the knot of Trump’s tie. “It was a microphone,” says an official who accompanied McConnell on the trip back in 2005. “Trump told Jack he always wore one in case he came across anything interesting he could use on his TV show. But Jack told him to remove it because it was a bit inappropriate.” A small slip in keeping with Trump’s eccentric, bullish persona perhaps. But, with hindsight, the faux pas – dismissed as a rich man’s foible – could be regarded as a harbinger of all that was to come.
That meeting – the first, tentative date in a rocky courtship – took place a decade ago, and how much wind has passed through the country’s turbines since then? In the early years, successive Scottish governments were ardent suitors, constantly cajoling and flattering, bending the knee and maybe even the rules, in the hope that Trump would bestow his blessings on them.
Then, as it became clear his investment came at too high a cost – a say over the country’s energy policy – the relationship cooled; insults were hurled, mostly by Trump. Yet, while it refused to change its mind on wind farms, the Scottish Government couldn’t quite let go. The magnificent shifting dunes at Foveran Links, Menie, in Aberdeenshire, had been flattened and the hotels and holiday homes that were to provide an economic “bonanza” failed to materialise, but the SNP still clung on to the hope that he would be the answer to at least some of their prayers. Most recently Trump was touting himself as the saviour of Prestwick Airport, which is dying on its feet (He promised to use it as the European base for Trump Aviation Operations).
The tycoon’s protest against US aid workers who contracted Ebola being brought home for treatment wasn’t enough to persuade the Scottish Government to act. Nor was his rant about Mexican immigrants. It wasn’t until Trump said all Muslims should be banned from entering the US that it got around to stripping him of his role as a GlobalScot, while Robert Gordon University revoked his honorary degree. The question is: what took them so long? Shouldn’t ministers have realised he was unfit for the role when his underhand tactics were first exposed by journalists? And shouldn’t the RGU have reconsidered its position when its former principal, Dr David Kennedy, handed back his own honorary degree in protest at Trump’s?
Back in 2005 – so McConnell’s camp would have it – Trump was an attractive proposition for a government keen to encourage investment. Not only did he have wealth and fame, his claim to a Scottish heritage wasn’t merely the wishful thinking of a rootless US Celtophile. His mother – Mary Anne MacLeod – emigrated from Lewis when she was 20. The cottage she was born in still stands in Tong, providing the perfect photo opportunity. Sure Trump was odd, overbearing and more than a touch flash, but this was not much to put up with when set against what he had to offer: status, power and instant global recognition. No wonder officials were soon pushing for him to become one of their GlobalScots – business ambassadors for the country. Still, there were warning signs for those who chose to look for them. The second time McConnell and Trump met, informally, in the company of Sean Connery at the Dressed to Kilt event, Trump is understood to have offered both men membership of the golf course which had not yet been approved. Another inappropriate gesture from a man with little regard for the niceties.
Not that allegations of impropriety were entirely one-sided. The following month allegations were already being made about the resources being put at Trump’s disposal. As a result of an FOI inquiry, Scotland on Sunday discovered Scottish Enterprise had paid for two helicopter tours taking in the golf course site at Menie, near Balmedie, in Alex Salmond’s constituency and offered to cover the costs of a feasibility study. Eyebrows were also raised over an email which suggested the meeting would provide “both Scotland and the Trump organisation with some public profile that [could] be tapped into… and [would] give a direct line into the government in Scotland.”
It wasn’t until 2007 though, when the SNP were in a minority government with the Greens’ support, that concerns about the way both sides were conducting themselves really began to gather momentum. When Aberdeenshire Council’s infrastructure service council voted to reject Trump’s £750m plan, chairman Martin Ford, who had the casting vote, found himself pilloried. Though a rejection at this stage is usually just a starting-point for negotiation, Trump announced he would not appeal. And so the Scottish Government took the unprecedented step of calling in an application which – by dint of having been rejected – involved no contentious planning issues. A year later, ministers granted planning approval, and the dunes – a Site of Special Scientific Interest – were surrendered.
What happened next has already been well-documented, both by land reform campaigner Andy Wightman and award-winning documentary-maker Anthony Baxter. The short version is that Trump was allowed to bulldoze the beach and hound locals, branding farmer Michael Forbes who refused to sell his land “an embarrassment to Scotland” and someone who “lives like a pig”.
Trump’s relationship with the Scottish Government began to fall apart when an application for an 11-turbine wind farm (The European Offshore Wind Development Centre or EOWDC) off the north-east coast near Menie was accepted. He claimed he had been given assurances it would not go ahead, though no evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this claim, and he turned against the government, accusing First Minister Alex Salmond of destroying the environment and of wreaking revenge for his refusal to endorse the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Two years later, Trump went a step further, claiming the damage done by wind farms “was a disaster for Scotland, like Pan Am 103”.
Nor was Trump’s rabble-rousing for export only; at home in the US, he appointed himself leader of the birther movement and demanded President Barack Obama produce his passport to prove he wasn’t born in Kenya. That’s when he wasn’t campaigning against vaccinations.
As far back as 2012, Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, lodged a petition to remove Trump as a GobalScot on the grounds that he was threatening to fund a private campaign against renewable energy, but Trump stayed on the list.
Perhaps the SNP’s reluctance to dump Trump can be explained by Salmond’s attraction to men with big wallets and bigger egos; men like Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter and Fred Goodwin, who can prove powerful allies, but come with baggage. Wightman, Lothians list candidate for the Scottish Green Party, has another theory. “Aberdeen didn’t really have an industrial revolution. So I think when oil came in the 70s, there was a whole generation of politicians in the North-east who thought that development happens when rich men from outside come with a lot of money, and they haven’t been able to get rid of that mentality,” he says.
Trump was originally offered the old Polkemmet Colliery site off the M8, among others. “I think if he had come to Polkemmet, or a site in Renfrewshire, local councillors would have been far more sceptical. They would have said ‘we’ve seen collieries come and go’ and they would have subjected his proposals to much greater scrutiny, whereas in the North-east they totally rolled over. They punished democratically-elected councillors who were exercising their quasi-judicial decision-making,” Wightman says.
Today Menie has the worst of all possible worlds – it has lost its SSSI, but without the quid pro quo of a significant jobs boost and with no requirement on Trump ever to deliver on the promised expansion. The Trump International Golf Links and five-star hotel have been up and running for several years, while a new clubhouse opened in June. But other proposed developments were put on hold as Trump sulked over the wind farm and shifted his focus to a similar development in County Clare in Ireland. Having had his appeal to the Court of Session rejected, he is waiting for a judgment from the UK Supreme Court over whether or not the consent for the EOWDC was unlawful. It is expected this week.
For all his huffing and puffing, Trump has not abandoned Scotland. He is currently engaged in a £200m refurbishment of Turnberry and he has pledged to do his best to ensure he brings lots of US tourists through Prestwick Airport. His feelings towards the SNP – and more specifically Salmond – blow hot and cold; one minute he is inviting the former First Minister to play a round of golf, the next vilifying him for blighting the landscape.
Nevertheless, fresh planning applications for hundreds of houses and holiday homes, a second 18-hole golf course and a ballroom and banquet hall for the hotel at Menie were submitted earlier this year. Trump still hopes to secure a championship such as The Open or the Scottish Open, though Wightman thinks that’s unlikely.
He said he had lodged new plans because the prospect of the EOWDC ever coming to fruition are receding (a claim the developer, Vattenfall, denies), while others have pointed out that applying for (and even gaining) planning permission is no guarantee anything will actually get built.
However serious Trump is or isn’t about Scotland, Scotland appears to be turning its back on him. Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described his comments on Muslims as “obnoxious and offensive”, while a government spokesman said they proved he was no longer fit to be a GlobalScot. Revoking his honorary degree, a spokesman for RGU said his views were incompatible with its ethos. Harvie has called for a boycott of Turnberry. And there are signs his comments are damaging his brand, particularly in the Middle East. In Dubai, a company developing a golf course and housing development has removed his name from the complex.
Ever convinced of his own rightness, Trump has not only refused to back down, but teamed up with columnist Katie Hopkins to propagate a vision of a radicalised UK, peppered with no-go areas and populated with people who agree with him. A record-breaking 500,000 signatures on an e-petition to have him banned from the UK, started by Suzanne Kelly from Aberdeen, suggests otherwise.
As for the Scottish response, Trump is once more shocked by the lack of emotional return he is getting on his investments. In an article in the Aberdeen Press & Journal, he says politicians should be thanking him, not pandering to political correctness.
“If they – Nicola Sturgeon and the RGU – were going to do this they should have informed me prior to my major investment in this £200m development [Turnberry],” he writes.
Poor old Trump. So deluded he believes Hopkins is the voice of a nation. With his approval ratings rising in the US, however, it is unlikely his latest experience will do anything to disabuse him of his own messianic conceit of himself. And in any case, he has already moved on to his next controversial pledge: to sign an executive order mandating the death penalty for cop-killers.
But what about Scottish leaders? Have they learned anything? “There is a lesson here,” agrees Wightman. “It’s that politicians should sup with a long spoon with these great global figures who will dump on any Scottish community as fast as they will build it up.” «