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You’ve Been Trumped

Alexander Barker

You've Been TrumpedAnthony Baxter
You’ve Been Trumped
Montrose Pictures
Broadcast on BBC2 21 October 2012 (UK)





“If of any property it ever was true that it was robbery, it is literally true of the property of the British aristocracy.” Writing about the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Marx found them to be simply the last version of the perennial principle of power in Britain since at least the dissolution of the monasteries—a principle which he saw as the historical germ of capitalism. Scottish land previously held in common by the inhabitants was forcibly appropriated by powerful lords for profitable use as pasture for sheep, all with the backing of the British state, and justified on the pretext of making “improvements” for the benefit of the public. From their “very wretched and deplorable situation“, one of the main expropriators wrote, the inhabitants were delivered to “increased and increasing industry and comfort“. This ongoing story of remorseless expropriation under the banner of so-called progress finds its latest chapter in the subject of You’ve Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter’s documentary on Donald Trump’s determined quest to build a monumental golf course in Aberdeenshire.

Baxter follows the struggle of the handful of local residents of Belhelvie, an environmentally pristine area of Aberdeenshire whose unique ecosystem is one of the last remaining of its kind—so precious and fragile that, under the name “Sands of Forvie“, it has been accorded the highest protection classification in Britain, Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Residents and ecosystem come under threat in 2006 when Donald Trump decides he wants to build “the best golf course in the world” on the site. The business plan is predicated on attracting rich customers from across the Atlantic to jet over for short breaks. Building the golf complex involves bulldozing the site’s dynamic sand dune system, the distinctiveness of which lies in the fact that it has never previously been tampered with by human activity.

Trump does not achieve this alone. The Scottish government steps in to overrule the local council’s commendable decision that this would destroy the SSSI, and is in general environmentally unsound. It seems Alex Salmond and his coterie believe Trump’s unsubstantiated assertions:

(1) that the residents are not complaining, and that anyway, they live in slums, which somehow renders them unworthy of the right to their own private property;
(2) that the site will be “environmentally perfect”, and is supported by most environmental groups; and finally,
(3) that the project will create thousands of jobs for the local economy, many of them permanent.

It is quite clear from the film that each of these three assertions is a brazen lie—an untruth asserted in clear knowledge of its falsehood, with a view to gain untold millions by the deceit. How Salmond’s government swallows this self-serving mendacity remains a mystery throughout, though some measure of the Scottish establishment’s abject fawning is exhibited in Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University award to Trump of an honorary doctorate in the midst of the controversy. Of course, all democratically accountable authorities implicated in the affair decline an interview with the film-maker. It is a timely reminder that while the United Kingdom might plausibly be seen as the one-sided regime the SNP declares it to be, national elites are quite capable of selling their own fellow citizens down the river when left to their own devices.

Anthony Baxter’s film is an excellent study in the not-quite-illegal ways the powerful have at their disposal to pursue their interests at the expense of the rights of ordinary citizens. Apparently convinced by Trump’s propaganda, the Scottish government puts all the weight of its legal and coercive power behind the developer, to the extent that:

(1) Trump’s team bulldozes the residents’ fields, piles mounds of earth in front of residents’ windows to block their view, and cuts off the residents’ water supply, all in an attempt to intimidate them into selling their land to him, and all with complete impunity, and even police protection.
(2) The government toys with the idea of implementing Compulsory Purchase Orders to force the residents to sell their land even if they decide to resist Trump’s intimidation.
(3) The documentary maker is arrested by police merely for knocking on the front door of the developer’s office (the arrest even happens after the documentary maker has left the property).

The film invites comparison with land grabs in the Global South, which are the focus of one of Oxfam’s latest campaigns. Vast tracts of land are being bought up—at the rate of an area the size of a football pitch every second, according to Oxfam—by Global North investors, at best with the intention of growing crops for export as food or biofuel, but often simply as a speculative investment amid rising land prices. Actual ownership of the land is usually historically unclear, and those who depend most on it, and who are most directly tied to it, are usually not involved in, and often not aware of, the transfer until they are forcibly evicted in ways that make Trump’s methods seem benign.

The absurdity of a global economic system where even a nationalist regional government prioritises the pleasures of a handful of ultra-rich golfers over the rights and livelihood of local citizens puts in a Scottish context the institutionalised deference to de facto power that the British conquest-state, among others, unleashed on the world over two centuries ago. It is just another consequence of the Global North’s rampant consumption habits spiralling out of control, sustained by the use of more or less veiled force in faraway places.

The inhabitants of the Sands of Forvie at least have the paltry consolation that the human and environmental tragedy of their struggle was recorded on film and its iniquity exposed to the world. For the inhabitants of much of the Global South, the indignity of worldwide indifference is added to the injustice of their expropriation.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.