The odd couple: Trump's controversial golf resort drives Salmond into the bunker

Scotland's First Minister is in trouble after intervening in a row to back the tycoon's multimillion-pound plans. By Mike Wade
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Indy Politics

One has big hair, a $2.9bn fortune and an ego the size of the moon. The other is a former racing tipster whose own prodigious vanity is swollen by the knowledge that he is his nation's most impressive politician.

They are an unlikely pair, Donald Trump, US tycoon, and Alex Salmond, First Minister. But they have conspired to plunge Scotland into something approaching a political crisis.

Two years ago, Trump, who proudly proclaims Scottish heritage, announced plans for a luxury golf resort on a windswept, lonely stretch of the Aberdeenshire coast. He expected the move to divide environmentalists from the business community, and it did. Now, though, it has turned uglier, with bitter claims of American bullying and Scottish toadying.

Where others see windswept dunes and hear only the relentless squawking of oystercatchers, Trump harbours a dream for a 2,000-acre seaside estate with two championship links golf courses, a new clubhouse, a modern gothic hotel, 500 private homes nearby and 950 timeshare flats. All accompanied by the joyous tinkle of cash registers.

Until two weeks ago, Trump had every reason to believe this huge venture would become a reality. His promise to deliver more than 1,000 permanent jobs and inject 47m into the local economy had wowed businessmen and journalists. He claimed 91 per cent support in the community. And he seemed to have convinced the local Member of the Scottish Parliament; the fact that this was Salmond, the SNP leader, appeared to seal the deal.

Step forward, Martin Ford, an Aberdeenshire councillor who chaired the planning committee. His casting vote unexpectedly vetoed the Trump plans with an immediate backlash. As Trump vowed to take his millions to Northern Ireland instead, fellow councillors forced Ford out. And, crucially, Salmond met Trump's advisers in private. The next day John Swinney, the SNP Finance Minister, "called in" the planning application. Opposition politicians, outmanoeuvred by Salmond since the May election, at last had something to crow about.

Not that Ford was the first to stand up to Trump. Before him, fisherman Michael Forbes, who owns a house on the proposed Menie links, refused to sell at any price. "Never to Trump," says Forbes. "They should be building houses young folk who've just been married can afford, not for the rich." Only a compulsory purchase order, it seems, will force him out.

There is a touch of Local Hero about all this, that classic 1983 film about a Scottish village's resistance to the advances of a megalomaniac businessman. But the comparisons only go so far.

It is true that the back nine holes of one of Trump's planned courses lie on dunes that form a site of special scientific interest, home to rare grasses, lichens and wading birds. But the adjoining village of Balmedie is no Pennan, the pretty whitewashed village in Bill Forsyth's film. Rather, it is an outcrop of Barrett-style boxes with 2,000 commuters. Drinkers at the White Horse care more for the potential reduced rates for residents at Trump's health club.

Salmond's intervention, though, came when the environmentalists held the upper hand, thanks to Ford. His decision to hold a private meeting with the Trump team at their base in Aberdeen's Marcliffe Hotel was, Salmond says, simply his duty as the local constituency MSP. But its timing in the aftermath of the planning decision was, at the very least, unfortunate.

The following day the government's chief planner, Jim Mackinnon, who was meeting Trump's camp, rang Alan Campbell, chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council. Campbell felt obliged to request that the Trump team left the room while the two officials spoke together.

A few hours later, Mackinnon called again to inform Campbell that the planning application was being called in by Swinney, the Finance Minister. Critics were unsurprised to learn that Swinney had attended a function at the Trump-owned Westchester Country Club in New York State just two days before he made his decision. Faced at First Minister's Questions with the accusation that his dealings "smell of sleaze", Salmond, habitually smooth and self-assured, was hesitant and evasive. And this from a politician who can swipe away the most savage interviews.

For years, nationalists have sought moral and financial succour from rich Americans with fine Scottish names but only the haziest notions of the home country. Trump, whose mother, Mary MacLeod, came from the Isle of Lewis, was a willing target. Last year, he opened a Burns Night event at Trump Tower in New York declaring himself "keen to invest" in Scotland.

By then, he had bought the Menie estate and established "a direct line into government" through Salmond's Labour predecessor. But his hold on the political establishment appears to have tightened since the election. Salmond "a brilliant man", says Trump is easy to do business with. And they have a mutual friend in the SNP's favourite expatriate, Sir Sean Connery.

In the end, Trump will probably have his way. His spokesman was disinclined to comment because "things are so sensitive". But Trump defended Salmond and Mackinnon in a letter to Aberdeenshire Council. At their meetings, Trump said, they had not discussed "any particular details of our planning application", though he added that the two men had "a great concern and commitment for the people of Aberdeenshire and Scotland".

Salmond will be hoping his stuttering performance of the past week quickly fades from memory. But for years, the SNP leader has been loud in his assaults on those who exhibit what he calls the "Scottish cringe", the tendency to fawn. So where does that leave him after cosying up to his wealthy American friend?