International Realpolitik and 'dingying' Donald Trump: does the Scottish Government have the expertise to manage international relations?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 21 November 2016 in Inside Politics

The relationship with Donald Trump is just one of many international relationships Scottish politicians may need to manage as Brexit takes its course

Donald Trump calling - Image credit: Matt Rourke AP/Press Association Images

“If Donald Trump phoned you, would you deal with him or dingy him? Deal with him or dingy him?” asked BBC sitcom star Gary: Tank Commander in a series of comedy interviews with the leaders of Scotland’s political parties prior to the Scottish Parliament elections in May.

“Categorically dingy,” said Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, describing him as “an arse”. “I think America will dingy him before I do,” said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, before deflecting the discussion to Trump’s hair.

A similar question was asked at the end of one of the pre-election televised leaders’ debates, and the answers were in a similar vein.

Asked what his opening gambit would be, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie answered: “Get off my phone!” adding that it was his “worst nightmare” that somebody like Donald Trump could be in charge of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

UKIP’s David Coburn, clearly less enthusiastic about Trump than his party leader, Nigel Farage, said the idea of Trump becoming president made Dr Strangelove “seem more like fact than fiction – it’s a very terrifying prospect,” although he did add that he would respond to the phonecall with: “Come round for a game of golf, Donald. Invest some money in Scotland.”


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“If Donald Trump phoned me, I think my comment would be ‘Can I have fries with that?’ cos I don’t think he’ll have a job, cos I don’t think he’ll be president of the United States, because I have too much faith in the people of the United States to ever let that man near the White House,” said Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

Patrick Harvie commented that the American president would not call him, given Trump had previously complained about him to the Public Standards Commissioner, accusing him of blasphemy, adding: “Let us all unite in hope that the American people see through the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, bombastic rhetoric of this most odious man.”

“Stop preaching hate,” was the answer Kezia Dugdale said she would give. And asked whether she thought the Scottish Government should regret “getting cosy with him”, Dugdale replied that Nicola Sturgeon was just trying to bring investment and jobs to Scotland, but it was just a shame it was “from somebody like that”.

“Given that I stripped Donald Trump of his Global Scot status, I’m not sure he’ll be wanting to phone me in the highly unlikely event that he becomes president,” said Nicola Sturgeon. Her message would be “I’m on the other line, sorry,” she said.

On the day of the election, when tackled by journalists on whether she might regret so openly backing Hillary Clinton in the event of a Trump win, Sturgeon rightly pointed out that nobody would believe her if she pretended otherwise.

And the reactions to news of Trump’s victory from Scotland’s political leaders, on Twitter, in press releases and in the Scottish Parliament, were scarcely more restrained.

Aside from every party leader in Scotland ridiculing him, Scotland’s relationship with Trump has been tetchy over the years, to say the least.

Last year, Sturgeon revoked Trump’s Global Scot status – an international business ambassador role for those with Scottish connections that had been given to him in 2006 by then first minister Jack McConnell  – following comments Trump made about banning Muslims from entering the US.

He has also had a series of spats with authorities in Scotland over planning permission for his Aberdeenshire golf course, his criticism of Scotland’s environmental policies and he took his opposition to offshore wind farms close to his golf course all the way to the Supreme Court.

Much of this evolved into a personal feud between Trump and Alex Salmond, with Trump at one point calling Salmond “the dumbest leader of the free world” and Salmond calling Trump a “dangerous man-child”.

And just last week, Trump got his way over a flagpole erected on his golf course without planning permission, with a ban by Aberdeenshire Council overturned by the Scottish Government reporter.

Clearly, some mental readjustment has to be done regarding Trump’s changed status from multi-millionaire businessman and reality TV star, to president of the United States.

So, will Nicola Sturgeon still say she’s on the other line if Trump does come calling?

Of course, the Scottish leaders are not alone in having criticised the new president-elect. French president François Hollande has previously said of Trump, “his excesses make you want to retch”, while German chancellor Angela Merkel barely hid her distaste in her post-election offer of cooperation based on “shared values”.

But nevertheless, is it wise that the First Minister and leaders of every other party have so openly dissed Trump before and after he took office?

There’s a difference between opposing policies that they find objectionable and openly mocking the president as a person, but where does personal opinion stop and diplomacy begin?

And with the US Scotland’s biggest overseas export market, worth around £3.9bn in 2014, and the country a key source of tourism revenue, Scotland cannot afford to ‘dingy’ the USA as a country.

The Scottish Government has not had to deal much with international realpolitik so far, but as it seeks to take a greater direct role on the international stage, this will become increasingly important.

The morality versus pragmatism dilemma in dealing with foreign powers, as well as diplomacy in managing international relationships, also came to the fore recently in dealings with China.

In April, it was revealed that the Scottish Government had signed a memorandum of understanding with a consortium of Chinese companies for a potential £10bn investment in infrastructure in Scotland.

But a couple of weeks ago, it emerged that this agreement had collapsed in August. Sturgeon said the reaction to that “clearly made it less likely that that was going to transpire in the short to medium term” and warned opposition parties against creating a “climate that is inhospitable to inward investment”.

But stranger still, the First Minister admitted: “We didn’t at that time interpret that email as cancelling the underlying memorandum of understanding.” An odd response.

Given Brexit, when Scotland is trying, increasingly, to forge its own relationships internationally, including a new trade hub in Berlin, and gaining possible new powers over international relations currently reserved to Westminster, its competence in managing relationships with foreign partners is paramount.

Last week, the Scottish Parliament passed a motion, albeit only supported by the SNP and Greens, with the Conservatives and Lib Dems opposing and Labour abstaining, calling on the UK to maintain Scotland’s place in the single market.

However, if the Scottish Government is unsuccessful in staying in that market, and the UK as whole leaves the EEA, it will still have to address international relations.

Among the newly repatriated powers Scotland might reasonably expect to be devolved post-Brexit are agriculture and fisheries, but outside the single market individual deals on tariffs would need to be negotiated with other countries, something Scotland at present has neither the power over nor experience of.

Of course, as has been widely noted, the UK Government has not negotiated trade deals for 40 years, but the Scottish Government has never negotiated them.

At a Law Society of Scotland fringe event on Brexit at the recent Scottish Green Party conference, political commentator Dominic Hinde asserted that Scotland does not have “the capacity” to manage EU negotiations. An audience member took exception to that, pointing out that many people in Scotland work with the EU.

Hinde clarified: “There are extremely competent people from Scotland working both within Scotland and right across Europe...my issue is with the government, and essentially by that I mean with the SNP, and the way it has chosen to pursue its European policy, and the way that its attitude, not just with the European policy, but also when it comes to economic policy and even environmental policy, has a tokenistic, at best, attitude towards academia sometimes, and the use of expertise, which is often used in a very public-facing manner.

“But when you look at the deeper issues and you realise that Scotland will very quickly have to develop teams of people working semi-autonomously under ministerial direction to go across Europe and have some kind of embryonic diplomatic service, with all the linguistic and legal skills which that entails, that is going to be very, very tough and also an expensive process…That does not exist at the moment.”

And, while not directly connected, the news last week that the Scottish Government will be unable to fulfil the planned transfer of social security powers to Holyrood in April 2017 and instead has asked the UK Government to handle them on its behalf for a further three years, is quite significant in this regard.

As it asks for further powers over international relationships, does the Scottish Government have the competence to manage them wisely if it gets them?

Realpolitik is a German word with which it has to become increasingly familiar. 

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