TO govern is to choose. To elect is, literally, to choose. And now Scotland’s voters are to have one more choice placed before them with Alex Salmond’s decision to launch a new party, seeking support on the list.

The former First Minister said his aim was to broaden support for independence, to get a “super majority” at Holyrood prepared to endorse a fresh referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon could frankly do without such assistance from her erstwhile SNP mentor. Not least because it will be a standing reminder of the controversy surrounding her government’s handling of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.

Opposition MSPs on a Holyrood committee combined to declare that she had misled them. However, she was cleared by an official inquiry of breaching the Ministerial code and she comfortably won a confidence motion.

READ MORE: BRIAN TAYLOR: This is not a civil war in the SNP. This is more vicious and more visceral

Earlier this week, SNP strategists were quietly hopeful that the worst of this issue was behind them. Ms Sturgeon must now hope that the momentum of an election campaign itself will subsume her former friend’s appeal.

And so begins the first socially distanced election. The cynics among you may say that most people will find little trouble in staying far away from canvassing politicians. But, still, this contest really counts.

Consider the cataclysmic changes since this Holyrood Parliament was elected in 2016. Firstly, Brexit. The SNP will build upon that, but cautiously.

They will recall that Scotland voted to remain in the EU and will argue that departure strengthens the case for independence. But, perhaps understandably, there will be few specifics at this stage as to how and when Scotland would recreate links with Brussels.

Secondly, the hideous plague. Self-evidently, the pandemic is the backdrop to the entire contest.

Anecdotally, it would appear to be the received view that Nicola Sturgeon has worked tirelessly, although understandably Opposition parties will point to flaws.

But what about broader strategy? The SNP will seek to build a post-pandemic economic and social consensus that “Scotland’s recovery should be in Scotland’s hands”.

That is couched to offend as few as possible. It most certainly includes the prospect of independence but does not explicitly rule out other devolved options, at least in the interim.

In essence, it is a single transferable message: appealing to the underlying patriotic mood which created the SNP in the first place but also brought devolution into being.

Of course, there is an added dimension. Most Nationalist speakers delivering their virtual stump speech will say “…in Scotland’s hands, and not Boris Johnson’s.”

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They will seek to posit the Prime Minister as an external threat to Scotland’s well-being, as antithetical to the Scottish perspective.

Look at the four per cent pay offer to NHS staff in Scotland. SNP Ministers reckon that is genuinely merited and in keeping with the Scottish outlook. But it also helps that it is in contradistinction to the relative parsimony of the UK Government offer.

It is also of course designed to quell Labour complaints, as is the move to take Scotrail into public ownership. Stand by for more universalism in the SNP manifesto.

The Conservative objective will be, as it was in 2016, to corral supporters of the Union into voting Tory. They will depict their rivals as weak and vacillating, specifically with regards to the prospect of a further independence referendum.

Why then, you might ask, does Boris Johnson not pre-empt the issue by insisting that he will veto a referendum in any circumstances?

Because, of course, that would undermine the core of the Scottish Conservative campaign. They mean to depict the SNP as zealous fanatics, intent on independence, no matter what.

They plan to argue, further, that the only way to stop indyref2 is to prevent the SNP from gaining a majority at Holyrood. And they offer themselves as the ones to provide that obstacle, partly by depicting the SNP as divided, citing Alex Salmond’s latest initiative.

More generally, an edict delivered by the PM would tend to reinforce the SNP message of external interference in Scotland’s affairs. Douglas Ross knows that, especially in Holyrood elections, the voters want politicians to stand up for themselves and to stand up for Scotland.

However, the Tories will say the best way to reinforce those Scottish interests is to use what they call the “broad shoulders” of the UK to rebuild the economy. Hence announcements such as the transition deal for North Sea oil.

Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar has three big challenges ahead. He too wants to thwart an overall SNP majority. But he wants to overhaul the Tories and regain second place.

More generally, he wants to reverse a dismal Labour record. The party has slipped back in popular fortune at every Holyrood election since the very first in 1999, when Donald Dewar entered coalition power.

Mr Sarwar wants Labour to speak with a different tone. Less overtly aggressive and confrontational. More in keeping with the mid-pandemic anxieties of the voters over jobs, health care and education.

He is very far from being a Sturgeon cheer-leader, not least because he is standing against her in her own constituency. But he thinks the Tories got it badly wrong when they called a motion of no confidence in her over the Salmond inquiry, before she had delivered her evidence.

The Liberal Democrats will try triangulation, appealing to middle Scotland. They will depict the SNP as “divided and incompetent” while inviting voters to shun the “clumsy and cruel” Tories.

More broadly, they hint they are happy, once again, to talk to Labour, especially about widespread reform of the UK constitution. Labour strategists downplay any such link.

The Greens, too, will stress the need for post-pandemic recovery, but will argue for a transformed economy, with a focus upon renewable energy and public transport. They say they are more committed to such aims than the SNP.

READ MORE: Brian Taylor: Herald columnist shares thoughts on indyref2

Particularly seeking list votes, the Greens will target the SNP and others. They support independence, arguing they could be placed to help deliver indyref2.

Over to the voters. Over to you.

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