With an enemy like the Donald, the FM can relax, certain that she is on the right side of public opinion, writes Lesley Riddoch.
So who won? Donald Trump, Theresa May, the Blimp, the Royals or the demonstrators? Actually, none of the above. The person to emerge with most dignity from last week’s unwanted tour by the American president was the woman he “totally hates” – Nicola Sturgeon. Borrowing Trump’s own thesis – that being talked about is far better than not being talked about – the First Minister scored from the minute Trump landed at Prestwick.
A former Downing Street official told an online newspaper: “The president continually takes up valuable phone time [with May] attacking the Scottish First Minister,” because she “has made clear her loathing of his politics” and “her predecessor fell out with Trump over his golf course developments”. Glory be.
The SNP’s original and unwise dalliance with the golf mogul has now been completely forgotten – buried under a mountain of democratic interventions perceived by the thin-skinned one as a targeted, vindictive personal attack. Sturgeon and Alex Salmond must be heaving a collective sigh of relief. With an enemy like Trump, Sturgeon can relax, certain in the knowledge she is on the right side of Scottish public opinion. She can maybe even bask in an odd sort of notoriety.
After all, there are not many people Trump actually hates – the self-absorbed president is generally indifferent to everything and everyone beyond his own inner circle. Not even the impending presence of the Queen, for example, prompted him to read royal protocols – as evidenced by his clumsy attempts to lead the 92-year-old monarch around a toe-curling review of the troops at Windsor Castle. Mind you, that also meant Trump didn’t seem to notice Prince Charles and Prince William were absent – apparently leaving the Queen to endure the Trumps on her own. The president didn’t notice. Instead his whole demeanour screamed “I couldn’t care less.” It was the same with his cruel dispatch of the needy, puppy-like May. In a newspaper interview, The Donald said a UK-US trade deal was off because her Chequers deal had wrecked Brexit and he suggested that Boris Johnson would have handled things better. The Prime Minister’s craven acceptance of this body blow and others evoked Mohammed Ali in his “rope a dope” seventies heyday. Unlike the Louisville Lip, however, May had no guard or rope to absorb the energy of those ferocious American jabs.
But still, the president’s attack didn’t seem to arise from any personal or political animosity. Just as his semi-apology didn’t contain the slightest trace of authenticity. Disruption is just what he does. Whether the head of state is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Germany’s Angela Merkel, he flatters and insults buy turn, aiming to destabilise rivals in the run-up to important trade talks. But hate? That’s an emotion largely reserved for his own former members of staff… and now it seems the First Minister.
That’s no mean feat.
Doubtless Sturgeon’s cool response to reports of Trump’s phone “bitching” will have riled the president further. An SNP source said the First Minister found it amusing that Trump spends time discussing her – because she doesn’t think about him at all.
Sturgeon then led Scotland’s largest gay pride march through Glasgow on Saturday – another indirect rebuke to Trump. It’s the first time a serving Prime Minister or First Minister has led a pride event, and it let Sturgeon contrast a society which “champions equality and fairness at all times” with Trump’s America where transgender people are banned from the US military and LGBTI content has been removed from US government websites, including an apology to gay people persecuted in the 1950s and 60s. In short, the First Minister has managed to put clear blue water between herself and the most unpopular head of state to visit Britain in years, and managed to contrast Scotland’s increasingly inclusive society with the US’s intolerant approach towards migrants, minorities and refugees.
May, by contrast, has been forced to overlook and downplay every Trump transgression from that recent, appalling decision to cage babies and separate migrant families to the earlier science-defying rejection of man-made climate change. The Prime Minister has had to stand by Trump as he berated European countries for not spending enough on defence at the Nato summit and tried to deflect news from Washington that 12 Russian intelligence officers will be indicted for the computer hacking that hobbled Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
The inconvenient truth is that May needs Trump – even though he is a one-man whirlwind of lies, game-playing and fake emotions. Holding hands with him taints her as a politician and reminds us that Britain will be soon be as craven as its Prime Minister in pursuit of a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal at almost any price.
Of course, now that Trump has departed for Finland, May has been trying to put a better spin on things, revealing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that he “told me to sue the EU. Not go into negotiations.” Observing that Trump’s suggestion was “too brutal,” the Tory leader was trying to portray herself as a different kind of leader to the irascible, truly hardball, “take it or leave it” deal-maker. But actually, her revelation shows precisely why Trump and his rancid politics are to be feared in Britain – he creates an extreme of bad behaviour which, by comparison, makes callous British Government policy on Windrush, benefit sanctions and universal credit look like minor misdemeanours. Similarly, Trump’s boorishness and tantrums make the combined flounce from office by David Davis and Boris Johnson last weekend appear almost principled.
The danger for supporters of the Union is that Trump creates a transatlantic, post-Brexit political spectrum in which protectionist, racist, anti-democratic, self-indulgent behaviour becomes normal and the buffoons of Westminster are thought to be acceptable because they are not as (visibly) cruel or moronic as Trump’s own henchmen.
This, needless to say, strengthens the case for Scottish independence.
So does Sturgeon’s laidback reaction to Trump’s “bitching” – it suggests the days of courting American presidents to block independence referendum interventions are well and truly over.
Perhaps Scots should thank Donald Trump for restating the importance of our own political values. To be fair to the man, though, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.