The US is an important market for Scottish goods and will only become more so after Brexit, writes Scott Macnab.
When Alex Salmond attacked Jeremy Corbyn over the Labour leader’s refusal to sing the national anthem at a war memorial service a few years ago, it raised some eyebrows. Salmond, remember, was a one-time Nationalist firebrand and leading light of the SNP’s left-wing ’79 Group, who had been kicked out of the party over his refusal to toe the line.
His efforts, more than any other individual, in a decades-long guerrilla campaign and war of attrition to destabilise the British state had taken Scotland to the cusp of independence. And yet Salmond insisted that he would always sing the national anthem at ceremonial events – despite the sixth verse containing the infamous words “rebellious Scots to crush”. Salmond reasoned, quite rightly, that the office of First Minister meant he was representing all of Scotland, not just the views of minority, and a more statesmanlike demeanour was demanded. Sometimes leaders must set their personal views aside, painful though that may be, and think about the bigger picture.
So Nicola Sturgeon’s outright hostility towards US President Donald Trump makes you wonder whether the national interest is being put first. Trump’s shortcomings during his Presidential adventure have been manifest, from his comments about women to the travel ban on citizens of mainly Muslim countries entering the US. Ms Sturgeon’s anger is understandable, but this is about more than her. The US is our most important overseas trading partner – by far – worth an estimated £4.8 billion of annul exports. It accounts for 16 per cent of Scotland’s global trade, with the next highest overseas export destination, the Netherlands, worth £2.1 billion.
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There’s a hysteria which surrounds attitudes and coverage towards this US President. His own erratic behaviour, particularly on social media forums at all hours of day and night are part of that. But political leaders must put their feelings to one side and focus on their own national interest. At a time when Scotland’s economy continues to flatline and Brexit looms, trading relationships with the rest of the world will be more important than ever – particularly with our biggest current partner and the largest economy in the world.
But Ms Sturgeon has struggled to contain the vitriol when it comes to Trump. Last week in Parliament she was happy to proclaim that the US President should not be receiving the “red carpet treatment” when he visits the UK in just over a fortnight. This was in response to the harrowing scenes of immigrant children being separated from their parents in the US. It was an easy political “hit” for Ms Sturgeon but not a problem she ever has to deal with.
Scotland’s problem is that it can’t attract enough immigration, not the quandary faced by the US where its southern border is often overwhelmed, with the knock-on effect this has on services. As long as there is a cap on immigration, hard decisions have to be taken. And exactly how the red carpet will be avoided is hard to imagine, given that the President will be meeting the Queen on July 13. What’s perhaps more intriguing is how Ms Sturgeon will react if he comes north to Scotland, perhaps for a round of golf at his Trump Turnberry course. She has ambiguously indicated that she will “not decline to meet” the US President. But would she lobby for a sit-down – and then be ready to plead the case for a Scottish business with a man she clearly can’t stomach?
Just this week, it emerged that many iconic Scottish brands could find themselves under threat after Brexit, with the likes of Stornoway black pudding and Arbroath smokies in danger of losing their PGI (protected geographical indicator) status in the lucrative US market. The Americans hate such protections and the Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, who sits on the European Parliament’s influential internal market committee, warned this week that the loss of such protections may be the price for securing a lucrative free trade deal with the US.
As the UK Government grows desperate on its post-Brexit trading future, such a scenario appears increasingly plausible. Given the President’s Scottish heritage, from the black pudding-producing Isle of Lewis, perhaps having a First Minister ready to fight Scotland’s corner and lobby directly for that special status to be retained could prove pivotal for these important Scottish brands and boost our lucrative food-and-drink industry. Ms Sturgeon has been happy to lead trade missions to China, without the stinging criticism of President Xi jinping’s regime which she routinely reserves for Trump. This is despite human rights and civil liberties restrictions which seem to be an accepted staple of China’s system of government. Whatever she may think of Trump, the US is a nation which at least shares our democratic values and everyday freedoms.
And it’s becoming increasingly clear that global trade is they key area where this President is seeking to make his mark. His “America First” pledge has been but the opening salvo in a global trade battle with other major nations and blocks, particularly China and the EU, to address the “unfair” deal he believes America currently gets. The current Channel 4 series Inside the Embassy, a fascinating behind the scenes look at the work of Trump’s recently appointed ambassador to the UK, his friend Philip “Woody” Johnson, gives an insight into the new focus on trade. Johnson is a billionaire philanthropist and owner of the New York Jets who has little time for “temporary working groups” and other such jargon. He is here to attract businesses to come to the US with “names taken” of firms which snub trade receptions at the new embassy as he seeks to attract investors. The Americans see Brexit as a great opportunity to do business with the UK. Surely Scottish companies, perhaps led by new Economy Secretary Derek Mackay, should be at the heart of this charm offensive. That won’t happen by insulting the man at the top.