AS the build-up to the US presidential election intensifies, it has been fascinating to observe in recent days the speculation over how the result will affect the UK’s trading prospects and diplomatic relations with Washington.

Scottish companies that do business with the US will be keeping a close eye on events, not least in the whisky industry. The US has long been one of the most lucrative markets for Scotch, accounting for more than £1 billion of the industry’s £4.91bn of exports in 2019. But since October last year exports to the world’s biggest economy have been hammered by a 25 per cent tariff imposed by the Trump administration on imports of single malt.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the tariff, which stems from a long-running trade dispute between the US and the European Union over aircraft subsidies, has already cost the industry at least £330 million in lost exports. That means single malt exports to the US, which were worth £378m in 2019, have fallen by at least 30% since the tariff came in, and the meter is continuing to rise.

Diplomatic efforts to end the damaging tariff have effectively been put on hold until after next month’s US election, and the industry appears resigned to the prospect that it will be well into 2021 before there is any meaningful movement.

Given the protectionist approach to international trade favoured by President Trump, which has brought sustained tension between the US and China for the duration of his tenure, it might be assumed the Scotch whisky industry is privately rooting for an election win for Democrat rival Joe Biden.

Trump may outwardly display an affinity for Scotland – he has two golf resorts here and his mother was born on the Hebridean island of Lewis – but his protectionist stance has done serious harm to one of the country’s most important industries, one that is a significant employer and economic contributor to rural areas, including the Highlands and Islands. Faced with the prospect of more of the same under Trump, Scotch whisky distillers will perhaps be hoping that Biden would bring a less protectionist stance with regard to America’s trading partners (though, from reading various articles in the US press, it may ultimately be unrealistic to expect major change to happen quickly).

But even a Biden win looks like it would bring complications for UK trading hopes, at least while the Government is run by the populist Johnson administration that at times has been all too eager to cosy up to Trump. Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama, is no fan of Brexit. Moreover the Democrat candidate, who is known to be proud of his Irish heritage, has been critical of the UK Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill, adding his voice to those concerned that Johnson’s willingness to disregard international law will have grave consequences for the hard-fought Good Friday Agreement.

Just how willing, therefore, a Biden administration will be to prioritise its relationship with the UK, be that in terms of whisky tariffs or a free trade deal, remains to be seen.

Indeed, a recurring view to have emerged in recent days is that Biden, if elected, will be significantly keener to forge closer links with Germany and France than the UK in the months ahead. A stable Europe has been a policy priority for the US since the Second World War, and, the argument goes, it is the major players such as Germany and France who hold the key in that regard, not the UK now that it has effectively turned its back on the EU.

While the toing and froing of international affairs is hugely absorbing for those with an interest in the politics of global diplomacy, it will provide little succour to single malt Scotch distillers.

Their product has for a year now been put at a serious economic disadvantage in its most important market, and it will be many months before the opportunity to seriously address the matter arises again. Though the industry has many other markets to aim for, the drop in exports to the US continues to have serious ramifications for its ability to maintain jobs at the height of the pandemic. The tariff is also a major hurdle for new distillers eager to get their businesses off the ground in the international arena.