WHEN it comes to deception and perception, it’s hard to top All The President’s Men, the film about Nixon and Watergate written by William Goldman. It’s a classic because it captures a rare moment when underhanded behaviour gets caught out; it has all the appeal of a conspiracy theory, with the unusual twist that there actually was a conspiracy.

Though journalists would like Goldman’s depiction of them as intrepid exposers of wrongdoing (to be played by Robert Redford) to be the norm, his real contribution to human knowledge comes not in that script, nor in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride or any of his other excellent pictures, but the three-word observation he made about Hollywood. It was this: “Nobody knows anything.”

The messy reality of politics, like most other thing in life, is that ineptitude, or just bad luck, are much more common than malign motivation. We can all produce long lists of politicians whom we think misguided, self-seeking, opportunistic or incompetent, but it’s childish to think that most are deliberately ill-intentioned, and absolutely moronic to characterise all members of a particular party, or politicians as a class, in that way.

While Goldman’s observation was about the impossibility of predicting how the public would respond to a film, it seems just as apposite when applied to how they are likely to react to politicians which, if we’re honest, often has practically nothing to do with what they do, but rather how they do it.

When there’s an ideological basis to the policy – capitalism versus socialism, unionism versus nationalism, traditionalism versus radicalism – there is at least the underlying logic of tribal adherence to some of those prejudices. But even then, lots of us are clearly more influenced – as we are in every other area of life – by how much we warm to an individual, or more accurately, a projected image, than any rational calculation.

This should be most obvious in circumstances where there are, ostensibly, no real political considerations at all. Nobody knows anything about the best policy decisions to tackle the coronavirus, and there’s no apparent reason why an avid Corbynista, or a fanatical Thatcherite, would reach different conclusions about how to proceed.

Which is why it seems extraordinary that there is an enormous divide in views on whether Westminster or Holyrood has handled the matter better, given that you would be hard pressed to point to much in the way of difference in policy. In fact, where there are differences, such as the figures on care homes, testing (well behind the rest of the UK), or recruitment of contact tracing staff, they often don’t reflect particularly well on the Scottish Government.

But that’s not the point: I’m perfectly happy to be persuaded (though I think it will be years before one could do so with any real evidence, let alone certainty) that the Scottish Government has done marginally better.

Indeed, it certainly has done so in presentational terms – unless you either adore or despise Nicola Sturgeon or Boris Johnson, you’d almost certainly conclude that this isn’t a situation which plays to his particular traits as a communicator, while on the whole she’s come across as measured and reasonable.

That can’t, however, explain why some polls suggest that in Scotland Ms Sturgeon has an approval rating of +80 for her handling of this crisis, and Mr Johnson one of -25. I’m well aware that this may reflect general political opinion, voting intention or just whether you like the look of either of them. But it simply doesn’t make any sense in terms of this issue.

If there is some hugely significant difference in the policies that have been adopted in Scotland, compared with those in the rest of the UK, I’m baffled as to what it is – and where piffling distinctions – opening garden centres three days later, or whatever – do exist, it’s not at all clear that they put us in the better position. Across all the nations of the UK, the only really substantial difference so far has been Northern Ireland’s adoption of a one-, rather than two-metre, distancing policy for schools.

It seems even more irrational to attempt to paint one government as shambolic, and another as exemplary, when we can’t even begin to make those comparisons with any certainty between countries in other parts of the world that have taken very different approaches.

The recent abrupt rise in Germany’s R rate may end up undermining the currently dominant view that it has so far been more effective in its measures than other European countries. Who knows whether Sweden and Switzerland’s policy of not bothering with lockdown, or New Zealand’s apparent success in isolating will, in a couple of years’ time, look like the wiser course of action? Any judgment taken now, on altogether inadequate information, is about as useful as describing Vatican City as the most successful country in tacking coronavirus, and San Marino as the least.

We not only don’t have a vaccine or a cure, we don’t have any sure knowledge of whether previous infection offers any immunity, we have no reliable data for making accurate international comparisons of the number who have died, or been infected, and most people accept that we won’t have for quite a long time.

All this is before you consider whether the policies any given administration has introduced to contain and tackle the virus may prove to be – in terms of the economy, other health outcomes, or a host of other issues – even more damaging than the disease itself.

It is in the nature of politics for people to claim unmerited credit, or to end up unfairly condemned by public opinion. All political careers, as has been observed, ultimately end in failure unless cut off prematurely at some happy juncture.

There is, however, usually some pretence that real-world outcomes have some relationship with the actions of politicians, that there is some actual distinction between the choices that different parties make, and that those decisions have some underlying principle or purpose. It would be nice if Scotland’s handled this well, but I can’t see any basis for saying so yet, and certainly not for saying we’ve done better.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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