Oh no. Do I have to? I suppose that there’s no way to avoid writing about Donald Trump this weekend, now that Alex Salmond’s dealings with the hirsute property tycoon have landed him – we are told – in the nationalist government’s first “sleaze scandal”.
Hmm. Even given the elastic nature of that term, I think it is stretching it to suggest corruption here. Favouritism, perhaps, ; indecent haste, maybe – but improper behaviour? I don’t think so. The affair does, however, betray a certain naiveté on the part of the SNP, and a want of good taste in leaping to the defence of a rather tacky real estate development as if it were a national treasure.
Trump is a big mouth and a bully – just look at his books and tv show. He is drunk on his own vanity and his own dubious charisma. The SNP would be advised to use rather longer spoons in future when they sup with casino developers who appear to have made a career out of averting bankruptcy. The Finance Minister, John Swinney playing golf on Trump’s Westchester development in New York State two days before he called in the Aberdeenshire planning decision was unfortunate – though the trip was paid by VisitScotland not Trump. But the supping began with Jack McConnell, and all the main parties support Trumptown in principle. The pong of hypocrisy in Holyrood was rather stronger than the whiff of sleaze last week.
But what really offends me is how Trump has made Scotland look like a country of parochial, small-time bumblers in awe of high-rollers with big mouths. A cross between Local Hero and The Long Good Friday. Top of the list must be Aberdeenshire council who have made complete fools of themselves through their prevarication, their incompetence and their procedural dyslexia. Here is a council which was overwhelmingly in favour of the development on the Menie Estate, but somehow managed to vote against it.
To deflect attention from their serial cock-ups – and their vindictive sacking of Martin Ford, the infrastructure committee chair who acted quite properly in using his casting vote against Trump – Aberdeenshire tried to dump on the Chief Planner for Scotland, Jim McKinnon. Council chiefs informed the Liberal Democrats that they’d had to drive Trump’s men, George Soriel and Neil Hobday, out of McKinnon’s office during a telephone conversation about the future of the development on the very day the planning decision was called in. The implication was clear: the Chief Planner was in the pockets of Trumpers.
Whether McKinnon was right to telephone the council when Trump’s representatives were in the room is a matter for him. However, you must at least give this experienced senior official the benefit of the doubt, if only because he cannot respond to the implied charges. McKinnon had been ordered by his SNP political masters to call in the planning decision as a matter of urgency, since Aberdeenshire were clearly incapable of getting their act together. Having Trump’s people around was probably unavoidable. However, it would’ve been nice if Scottish Natural Heritage had perhaps been in the room too, and some of the other objectors like the RSPB, but there you go. Money talks; and with people like Trump it bellows and blusters.
Why did Alex Salmond meet the Trumpeteers the day before the unprecedented decision to call in the planning application. Well, again, it is quite in order for the local MP/MSP to meet with the people responsible for a billion pound housing development with a nice golf course attached. Was he showing favouritism? Well, if you mean did he favour the development, the answer is manifestly ‘yes’.
Did he know when he met Trump’s men that the planning decision was going to be called in the next day? Probably not, though I’m sure he knew it was going to be called in soon by his colleague John Swinney. Had he known the exact timing of the action I suspect he would have rescheduled his meeting with the Trump gang for appearance’s sake.
But there is no doubt that entire energies of the government, from the top down, were devoted to one thing; dissuading Trump from taking his development across the Irish Sea. After Aberdeenshire’s infrastructure committee had rejected his development on November 29th, on the grounds that it was illegal under the area plan, Mr Trump had thrown a tantrum and instead of seeking to compromise or appeal against the decision, threatened to walk away in 30 days. This is typical of his robust style.
The government decided that the loss of this venture would give Scotland a reputation as a country which was not open for business. So they tried desperately to short-circuit the planning process to appease he Great Quiff. This was clearly favouritism since they certainly weren’t calling it in to save the local environment from destruction. Objectors claim this was an abuse of the planning system, though the government acted within the law.
You can understand the economic imperative. But I would question whether allowing yourselves to be bounced by this man is really a good advert for Scotland. He is regarded in the business world as a colourful character, and self-publicist, who sails close to the wind. This episode sends a message to every wide-boy property developer from Manhattan to Mumbai that the Scots are so weak and befuddled, that you can run rings round them. That you can walk into the office of any top civil servant and browbeat them into getting you want you want.
As I say, I intend no slur against the integrity of the Chief Planner, Jim McKinnon, who is an innocent bystander here. But the Scottish political classes as a whole have shown themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to dealing with difficult people like Trump. It was not unreasonable to expect him at least to negotiate over the Site of Special Scientific Interest that he intended to defile with his golf links. Maybe in the end, the development is worth the damage to the environment. Almost certainly a compromise could have been reached over fate of the sand dunes in question. But negotiation is something the Trump people prefer to engage un through duress – when the other guy is on the back foot.
However, to accuse Salmond of behaving improperly is wide. The First Minister has been around much too long to get caught out in something like that. The only apparent breach of the ministerial code involves using his official car to attend a constituency engagement with the Trumps which, if it is an offence, is trivial. He hasn’t been accepting, for example, secret donations from the Trump organisation. Nor has the SNP been accepting undisclosed loans, or receiving cash through proxy organisations. There is no suggestion that any laws were broken and none of Salmond’s people had misrepresented their relationship with Trump.
Which might go some way to account for the dog that didn’t bark last week. Curiously, Wendy Alexander chose not to home in on the Trump affair at First Minister’s Question Time, choosing instead the worthy topic of benefits to carers of the disabled. I’m sure this has nothing whatever to do with the fact that she faces a police investigation over her admitted breach of the laws on party fund-raising.