Do you get the sense that there is something different about the coming election? You may not be one of those politics anoraks to be found constantly sniffing the air trying to pick up the scent of a trend. Or the kind who spends their days peering into a metaphorical microscope at the denizens of the political pond trying to discern patterns and purpose in their obscure activities. You may not be able to quite put your finger on what it is. But you may yet be troubled by the feeling that the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections are extraordinary in some way.
And you’d be right. The circumstances in which we find ourselves conspire to create a context for this election which sets it apart from the carefully crafted norm of the British political system, with its stultifying obsession with economics; its mechanistic resort to well-tried propaganda techniques; its artifice and insincerity and triviality; its concerns and priorities contrived as distractions from uncomfortably real issues; its faux rivalries between and among cliques barely discernible in terms of ideology and policy; its reliance on disaffection and apathy… its awful Britishness.
Those special circumstances include, but are not necessarily limited to, the aftermath of the first referendum campaign; the looming EU referendum; and the issues surrounding the British establishment’s efforts to foist upon Scotland yet another round of constitutional tinkering – this one distinguished only by having added malice to ineptitude in its formulation.
To this list we might add the efforts of large parts of the political left in Scotland to persuade voters that, by some never quite explained process, we might have now that which we hope to achieve as an independent nation. The pernicious notion that devolution might, after all, be enough. An echo of the unionist rhetoric about “using the powers we have (or soon will have)”.
All of these things come together to create a quite distinctive context for this election.
We have an electorate that is more aware and engaged than is usual. We have the prospect of an EU referendum which serves to push the constitution to the forefront rather more than the British establishment is comfortable with. Piling in on top of that we have the Scotland Bill/Financial Framework, which makes it doubly difficult to bury the constitutional issue under a tsunami of economic and performance statistics.
And we have the radical left unconvincingly setting aside their customary factionalism in the hope of extracting some electoral advantage from all of this by peddling a magical formula that will supposedly bring about a more diverse parliament and much else without the inconvenience of having to go through the process of restoring Scotland’s independence.
But what does it all mean for voters? Well, the good news is that it makes things simpler.
Simpler because we cannot choose the things that the radical left tempts us with. We are not yet at the point where we are choosing between conventional and radical policies. We are at the point where we are required to defend our potential to have such choices in the future.
Simpler because, in this election, there is a single overriding imperative which is so crucial that it relegates all policy considerations to a distant second place.
Simpler because the choice is not between the principled, if often irritatingly cautious, pragmatism of the SNP and something bigger, bolder and brighter. The choice is between a party which, at the very minimum, has accommodated the opening of Scotland’s political space to the progressive; and political forces which absolutely exclude the progressive and would see it crushed out of existence.
I realise that this is hard for some to accept. I know that I will be accused of “defeatism” by those whose hunger for change leads them to misread our current situation. I expect to be assailed with taunts about “blind allegiance” to the SNP. I’ll shrug this off. Because I know that none of those reacting to my remarks with that kind of vehemence would be able to explain what progressive objective, on any reasonable time-scale, is not entirely dependent on returning a majority SNP government in May.
Which means #BothVotesSNP. It really is that simple.