IF the last year proved anything, it’s that politicians are ineffectual to the point of endangering the people who elect them.

In both Edinburgh and London, the political response to Covid has been one of needless misstep and halting indecision. We began with disastrous failures over NHS protective gear, and the treatment of the elderly in care homes – and the errors just kept mounting, both medical and economic. Over Christmas, as death and illness rose, the political folly of stubbornly refusing to admit to the risk of keeping schools open became horribly clear. Now, there’s the inept roll-out of the vaccination programme.

Boris Johnson is rightly pilloried as an abject failure of a leader. Here in Scotland, though, a polished Nicola Sturgeon glides through her mistakes – aided by the fact she can play the role of official opposition to Johnson, despite being a national leader who’s made pretty much the same errors as he has. Presentational skills, or lack of them, matter little to the dead. Nor do they matter when you’re on the dole.

As a mark of the collective failure of our two governments north and south, note that Israel has vaccinated around 16% of its population. Across our four nations, vaccination stands at around 1-2% – roughly the same as America.

It’s often hard to be charitable to politicians – paid handsomely, as they are, to swagger and badly lead us – but some generosity can be found given the unique and dreadful circumstances of the pandemic. Few of us would do any better.

But something niggles at the back of the mind when this kind of forgiveness is offered to the political class over Covid – because it asks us to forget all their other dangerous sins. And the greatest of these sins is that it’s politicians who have sown the discontent which now runs – virus-like – through our societies. In England and Scotland, and America, it’s politicians who have incrementally manipulated us into intractable bubbles of ‘us versus them’. There was a time when we weren’t riven by hate – remember? It’s too easy to blame social media – the source of hate is political.

In recent weeks, there’s been a number of examples of Scottish politicians pushing the acceptability of political language to its limits. I don’t mean swearing or coarsening of language – I mean the use of divisive and dangerous language in the style of Donald Trump. And the shame lies on both sides – Yes and No. There’s no difference in the danger whether it comes wrapped in a Saltire or Union Flag.

SNP MP Steven Bonnar said that “we will fight to the death for our country … if that’s what it takes”. George Galloway had similar thoughts. He said: “It’s time to say: there are no circumstances in which we will accept the break-up, the partition of our country. So long as 100 of us remain alive.” Galloway founded the anti-independence party Alliance for Unity.

Why are nationalist and unionist politicians playing with language which has at its heart metaphors of war, or raise the spectre of death and violence? Both Bonnar and Galloway may say they’re simply speaking colourfully – that they’re being figurative – but language matters. Other people take their lead from such characters. We saw that with Brexit. We saw that in America under Trump. The abuse of language, the use of extreme language, leads to untold democratic harm. Will Scotland now follow the same ugly road as the Brexiteers and Trump, where hate and hyperbole – and their real life consequences – are an acceptable part of political life?

Scotland has already seen its political language debased since 2014, with insults like ‘Nazi’ and ‘traitor’ thrown around by both the Yes and No bases – as if these kind of words are fit for every day debate, when in truth they’re terms with specific and deadly meaning. We’ll live to regret the day we allow the language of war to infect our politics without raising our voices against those who’d sully us.

The former SNP MP George Kerevan has also taken to dangerous exaggeration. On social media, with images of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Ghandi, he wrote: “People who did not ask for a referendum from their oppressors before they demanded freedom.”

The idea that Scotland – which had its nose as deep in the trough of Empire as any part of Britain – is somehow oppressed by London today is absurd and ugly, and I say that as a Yes voter. To claim victimhood is to start a chain of events which may quickly get out of hand. Victimhood demands revenge on the victimiser. Our political class plays with fire – at all our expense.

In a column in The National newspaper, Kerevan toyed with the fantasy of victimhood once again, when he wrote that “after some 300 years of servility the Scottish people have decided to get off their knees”.

We’ve had foolish politicians in Scotland saying foolish things for a long time. In a country which remains marred by sectarianism, it still evokes a shudder to think of the Tory MSP Murdo Fraser tweeting about a Rangers victory over Celtic with the words “the Queen’s 11 deliver Her Majesty the perfect birthday present”.

But we’re now fast approaching a Holyrood election which will decided this nation’s future – all of us are emotionally invested in the outcome, regardless of our constitutional view. Cynical (or stupid? power-hungry?) politicians may not know that they’re stoking dangerous embers, but they are; emotions could easily boil over into something we’ve never seen in Scotland.

Perhaps, I’m too cautious, too worried about the real-life consequences of dangerous language. But I was raised in Northern Ireland, so forgive me. I’ve reported on the consequences of political violence my whole working life – and I'm acutely aware that the words of politicians matter.

We cannot legislate to silence political voices – our country is thankfully free. But we can shame these politicians into silence. Social media gives us the power to tell them their words are unwanted. Their own party leaders can punish them. And we can give them what they deserve at the ballot box.

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