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The May Trump axis of ignorance: a zombie version of the special relationship

THEY made oddest couple in international politics: the belligerent misogynist and the vicar’s daughter. Theresa May literally walking hand-in-hand with Donald Trump outside the White House was a spectacle of toe-curling embarrassment for most of us. It was like a zombie version of the Special Relationship.

The joint press conference was excruciating. May donning a rictus smile as the US President repeatedly spoke on her behalf. “We’re both people persons,” he remarked, to universal disbelief. She insisted in turn that they were both on the side of ordinary working people, which was almost as dubious. But at least the pussy-grabbing POTUS was on his best behaviour, even taking a rather probing question about abortion, Putin and the Muslim ban from the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg without launching into the tirade of abuse which he normally uses with journalists who try to do their job.

Trump said that “a free and independent Britain is a blessing to the world”, sounding as if he thought the UK had just been liberated from foreign domination. Perhaps that’s what he does think: that the European Union is a kind of German-dominated Reich, holding free nations of Europe captive. Inevitably he alluded to his own business dealings in Europe, which he suggested had been impeded by Brussels regulations. Presumably, he expects the UK now to be a pushover.

Theresa May looked well pleased afterwards that she’d got a commitment (she thought) on Nato, and a promise on trade. Job done. But the fact that she was so eager to share a platform fellow world leaders have so far avoided was no cause for self-congratulation. This was a week in which Donald Trump extolled torture; began work on a thousand-mile “great” border wall; launched a trade war with Mexico; and engaged in a petulant war with the media over the size of the crowd at his inauguration. That led to the latest Trumpism: “alternative facts”, presidentially approved, which are to be held to be self-evidently truer than truth itself.

I sincerely hope we don’t see Nicola Sturgeon begging crumbs from the Trump table when he tours Scotland as part of his forthcoming state visit, the announcement of which was the top line from Theresa May’s trip to Washington. The First Minister famously endorsed the parliamentary petition in 2014 seeking to have Donald Trump banned from Britain. The President has reportedly demanded that the Queen make Balmoral available to him, and insisted that he should play a round of golf with Her Majesty as an observer. If this were true it would be a transparent promotion of his golfing interests in Turnberry and Aberdeenshire, using the Queen as a prop for the most egregious photo-op in history.

Her apologists say that Theresa May had no alternative but to bend the knee at Trump Tower. England voted for Brexit and has to accept the consequences: that Britain is forced to look elsewhere for preferential trade. Having ruled out membership of the greatest free trade block on the planet – the European Single Market – she is forced to seek a deal with America, our next biggest trading partner, under whatever terms she can get.

But Scotland didn’t vote for all this, and many here find the obeisance to the Laird of Menie stomach-churning. Leaving the European Single Market is bad enough. That cuts Scotland off from EU farm subsidies, much-needed inward migration, tech and university research, valuable export markets and the protection of EU environmental and social laws. But a punk trade deal with Donald Trump, could magnify this damage 100-fold. US trade negotiators are notoriously hard-headed in their pursuit of American business interests and now they have a pit bull President leading the pack.

Theresa May has already conceded that the National Health Service will not be exempted from these trade talks. This is ominous. Before the Scottish independence referendum, the Yes campaign was ridiculed by Better Together and the UK press for suggesting that the Scottish NHS could be privatised after a No vote. But the threat to our publicly-provided health service is now very real indeed.

The US may use the trade negotiations to prise open the NHS to competition from American health care companies. The English system has adopted private provision already and will be unable to withstand this invasion. But the Scottish system, which hasn’t, now looks  vulnerable to predatory US lawyers who will argue that the NHS is a UK national service.

Pharmaceutical giants want to sell their drugs here. US farmers are keen to sell us beef that has been pumped full of hormones banned in Europe, and chlorinated chicken carcasses that would not meet EU standards. Some 70 per cent of US processed foods contain GM crops which are not allowed under EU food safety rules. Nor are the pesticides widely in use by American agribusiness. Scottish farmers and beef producers seem unaware of the potential consequences. Not only will their beef no longer be protected by the European subsidies and tariffs, they may find they have no alternative but to debase the quality of produce to compete.

The whole range of environmental regulations established by Europe may also be swept aside in the interests of securing better trade with the United States. Workers’ rights in the US are far inferior to those of the European Union in terms of hours, holiday entitlements and other protections. Scottish workers may find themselves on a level playing field with Trump’s America rather than social Europe.

The European Union was sometimes a pushover for corporate lobbyists – but at least there was some pushback. The secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations with the USA were ultimately blocked by popular opposition in Germany and Austria. The proposed Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) courts, which emerged only through leaks from the secret TTIP talks, were seen as a beach-head against the European social model and regulation as a whole. Under the ISDS courts, states could have been sued by US corporate lawyers, and the rulings would override national laws. Any new deal between the UK the US is likely to lead to similar dispute arbitration, the only difference being that the UK will be fighting alone and without he resources of the EU behind it.

None of this may be apparent at first – any actual trade settlement is many years off. No doubt there will be claims from both sides that The Donald is prepared to offer a “brilliant”, mutually advantageous deal, abolishing duties altogether on many exports. But we already have near free trade with America in physical goods, where tariffs average only 3%. Advanced trade negotiations are essentially about services and removing complex “non-tariff barriers” such as bank regulations, car safety standards and animal welfare. That’s where the devil lies in the legal detail. The temptation for the inexperienced UK trade negotiators (for the last 40 years nearly all our trade deals have been negotiated by Brussels) will be to weaken or abandon many of these regulations, many of which have been enforced at EU level, in order to get a deal of some kind as soon as possible.

Brexit has cut Scotland off from Europe and exposed this country to the harshest economic and regulatory winds from across the Atlantic. The Trump/May special relationship looks like being a disaster for the planet and for world peace; but it could also be a tragedy for Scotland’s economic, social and environmental welfare. We have been warned.

adapted from Sunday Herald, 27/1/17

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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