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How Donald Trump managed to wear out Scotland's welcome

dw.com dw.com 6/11/2016 Peter Geoghegan
plain © Getty Images/J.-J. Mitchell plain

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, once a friend of Scotland, has worn out his welcome. Locals are all but amused with the real estate magnate, writes Peter Geoghegan.

Donald Trump has plenty of links with Scotland. The Republican presidential candidate's mother, Mary Anne, was born on the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Trump's business empire includes two Scottish golf courses, most notably the famous Turnberry resort.

The reality TV star has made much of his Scottish roots - but he will want to forget the day he spent in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh four years ago which ended with the Republican nominee accusing a Scottish politician of blasphemy during a bizarre parliamentary session.

In 2012, the Scottish parliament launched a committee looking at the impact of renewable energy. Trump, who vocally opposed a project to build wind turbines near his multi-million-pound Aberdeen golf development, was invited to give evidence.

"He shouldn't have been there at all. He should never have been invited in the first place," recalls Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Green Party and a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.

Donald Trump had once been close to the Scottish government. In 2008, the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration took the unprecedented step of overruling the Aberdeenshire Council when it rejected his bid for planning permission.

'There's only one Donald Trump'

By April 2012, however, Trump was a deeply divisive figure in his mother's native land. When he arrived to give evidence, the scene outside the normally sedate Holyrood parliament resembled a fiery political rally. Crowds of anti-wind activists carried placards chanting "there's only one Donald Trump." Environmentalists booed loudly. The reality TV star smirked and waved.

Inside, the Scottish Parliament was equally chaotic. One of Trump's bodyguards triggered a security scare when a suspicious canister was spotted strapped to his hip. It turned out to be hairspray.

Once proceedings finally began in the small, wood-paneled committee room, Trump displayed an approach to argument that would be familiar to any views of the recent presidential debates: The Scottish landscape was, he said, being destroyed by subsidy-draining, inefficient and Chinese-built wind farms. Tourism would dry up if the government continued its policy of building wind farms.

"As a piece of political theater it was tremendous," recalls Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative convenor of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. "But in terms of his evidence there wasn't much to it, there wasn't much substance."

The Scottish public, Trump continued, loathed wind farms. When Scottish nationalist Chic Brodie asked what evidence Trump had to support his claims, the billionaire pointed at himself and declared, "I am the evidence."

"It was the biggest laugh of the morning," recalls Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens. "He thought people were laughing because he had said something terribly clever, but they were laughing because what he had said was absurd."

From absurd to the ridiculous

For Harvie, Trump's appearance quickly went from absurd to ridiculous.

After the "Apprentice" anchor had finished his almost two-hour evidence session, Harvie tweeted an image from the Monty Python comedy film "Life of Brian" with a speech bubble superimposed beside each character that read "I am the evidence." George Sorial, Trump's combative right-hand man, complained to the Holyrood standards commissioner that the Scottish Green had been "offensive" and "blasphemous."

The Scottish blasphemy law was last enforced in 1843, but under parliament rules, an investigation had to be launched. Harvie, a slight, bespectacled man with a mild manner that masks a dark sense of humor, did not take the inquiry entirely seriously.

"I had to put in a submission in response. I used lots of other Monty Python references in it. I didn't expect the Spanish inquisition."

"It was nonsense," says Harvie. The case was dismissed, making Harvie the only Scottish parliamentarian ever to be formally cleared of blasphemy.

Distancing themselves

Trump's buffoonish turn at Holyrood masks deeper, more unsettling questions about the relationship between the property developer and the Scottish establishment.

In recent years, every major Scottish political figure has been at pains to distance themselves from Trump. Earlier this month, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would be "horrified" if Trump became president.

Last year, the Scottish first minister rescinded his membership of the GlobalScot business network after Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration.

But a decade ago, the situation was very different. Labour Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell and his Scottish National Party successor, Alex Salmond, both aggressively courted Trump.

After much encouragement, Trump purchased the Menie estate just north of Aberdeen in 2006. The 600-hectare (1,482 acres) estate sat upon a legally protected dunes system, designated as a site of special scientific interest under the UK's environment laws.

When Aberdeenshire Council rejected Trump's proposal to build a sprawling golfing complex on the Menie site, in large part due to a warning from Scottish Natural Heritage about the impact of the development, the minority Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh intervened, in 2008. For the first, and so far only, time since devolution in 1999, the Scottish government overturned a rejected planning application.

"That's the real tragedy of this. Trump just said 'give me what I want or I walk away,'" says Patrick Harvie. "This was a misuse of the planning system. It was bought and sold."

Eight years after winning approval for a resort that he claimed would employee thousands, Trump only employs 95 people, many of whom are seasonal or part-time. Instead of the promised 1-billion-pound-development ($1.2 billion, 1.1 billion euros), he has only invested about 30 million pounds.

In 2015, Trump lost a bid to prevent the construction of 11 wind turbines off the coast of his Aberdeenshire golf course. But he vowed to continue his challenge in the courts. Many in the US and around the world will be wondering if the Republican candidate will do the same after Tuesday's election.

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