IT’S not often you get moved by an invoice. I didn’t end up in journalism because I’m a sentimental sort of soul. But in recent days the Electoral Commission has released hundreds of pages of bills, accounts and reckonings from last year’s general election, and reading them has been an unexpectedly wistful experience.

Only a few months old, they are already thick with the stour of history, a snapshot of how things used to be done before coronavirus intervened.

Because of Covid, the spending data from December is being issued in stages, rather than all parties at once.

The most recent lot included the Tories and the SNP. The headline figures showed the enviable efficiency of Nicola Sturgeon’s party at converting money into votes and seats, and how horrendously hard the Tories find it north of the border.

The SNP got an MP for every £20,937 spent on electioneering. The Scottish Conservative spent almost 13 times as much - £264,740 - on bagging each of their six MPs.

Compare that to Wales, where an average of £64,622 lay behind the election of each Tory, or the £40,497 per skull in England, and you can better appreciate why Jackson Carlaw had his card marked.

Then there were those invoices, reams and reams of them, most for “unsolicited material”, aka letterbox junk, but also polling, car rentals, village hall hires, B&Bs, flags, bags, pens and ponchos and the scores of other behind-the-scenes ingredients that go into a typical election.

They are full of titbits. While parties still rely heavily on old-fashioned leaflets and flyers, more and more is going social media adverts. One Tory invoice was for £500,000 on Google.

Sometimes, there is a whiff of intrigue. The Tories also spent £30,000 on “Labour research services” from an outfit based in a Westminster flat.

There is also pathos. In a distinct lack of faith in Mr Carlaw, their then interim leader, the Scottish Tories cold-bloodedly spent £54,415 on a mailshot featuring his better-known predecessor Ruth Davidson. Ouch.

The paperwork is also a reminder of how election schemes gang aft agley.

It shows the SNP spent around £50,000 on its manifesto launch, but the event had to compete on social media with a head-slapping gaffe by one of the party’s candidates, who managed to get the name of his constituency wrong at a hustings the night before. On video.

But the Commission’s data dump was not just informative about the last election, it also brought home all that could be lacking from the next one.

The Holyrood vote of 2021 may well be the strangest election of our lives, a rum, etiolated thing drained of colour and vigour by whatever Covid rules are in force in the spring.

I don’t think it will be cancelled or significantly delayed, but a postal vote and a campaign largely confined to TV and online is a distinct possibility.

What a pity it would be not to have all the familiar sights and sounds.

The slick rallies and the drowsy hustings in community centres, the battalions of clipboard-wielding canvassers and the chatty street stalls, the campaign rooms submerged in leaflets, the doorstep conversations and the late-night arguments, the speeches and the soundbites, the preaching and the trickery, and threaded through it all an admirable, uplifting sense of communal effort.

I have selfish reasons, of course, for wishing things would stay the same.

Elections up close are just flat-out fun for reportes. They’re exciting to watch and exciting to be part of. They generate stories in a mad rush.

The unexpected is always close at hand. Party control-freakery cannot cope with the scale of everything that is going on. Candidates malfunction. Gaffes mushroom. They are sprawling circuses in which everyone is holding their breath and any performer can take a sudden and final tumble.

But that unpredictability also gives elections their nobler aspect. They are an in-your-face inspection of those seeking power, and rightly so.

They reveal who’s smart and talented, who’s sloppy and dim, which parties look capable of government and which ones don’t.

Our would-be tribunes are put through their paces for months on end, organising a campaign, inspiring activists, building a team, persuading voters - the good candidates at least.

True, Holyrood’s party list system and large numbers of safe seats mean many will be elected without having to bleed for every cross on the ballot paper, but the pre-Covid election is still a vital form of training for MSPs.

They need to put a shift in and get dirt under their nails. They need to earn their spot, and they need to acquire the horror of losing that keeps them mindful of their constituents.

We are entering a second wave winter in which the pandemic will be increasingly politicised as not only the Holyrood, but the English council and mayoral elections, loom large.

Fear, anger and economic pain are a volatile mix, even before adding the possible accelerant of a no-deal Brexit. The months and years ahead will be crying out for good leadership.

But with a record number of MSPs standing down, a new generation is set to enter Holyrood without the usual hard baptism, and their outlook, skills and the parliament as a whole can only be the poorer for it. The invoices of 2021 may show an election on the cheap, but at what cost?