THERE is a classic work of literature which neatly encapsulates this surreal election. Unfortunately, it is not Utopia nor yet an uplifting scientific vision of a glittering future, replete with contented citizens.

Rather, it is Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.

There is, entirely rightly, no escaping coronavirus in this contest. To be fair, our would-be tribunes have made no endeavour so to do.

They know that our people have endured and are still enduring pandemic pandemonium.

Our people have witnessed illness and death. They have submitted, mostly with good grace, to repeated lockdown. They have seen shuttered schools and colleges; pubs, cafes and restaurants obliged to close; the economy assailed and battered.

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Our people want comfort. They want reassurance. They want signs, now thankfully in place, that this will end.

Generally, the carnival that is vote-seeking politics craves momentum. It wants to move on, to shift to the next caravanserai or resting place on the road to perpetual progress.

Either because the leaders are in government and know how difficult it is to deal with entrenched problems. Or because they yearn to be in government and have yet to find out for themselves how intractable contemporary life can be.

Whatever, this is not a time for the customary platitudes. It is a moment to devise new Panglossian platitudes. To respond to the anxiety and stress evident throughout Scottish society.

As I write, a news release arrives in my email inbox. Willie Rennie, for it is he, is offering to “make the worry go away”.

There, I thought, is someone responding to the zeitgeist. Closer reading reveals that Mr Rennie is ambitiously positing his Liberal Democrats as the ones to thwart the horror, as he sees it, of indyref2.

It scarcely needs saying (so I will say it) that there are those who will reject Mr Rennie’s objective and others who will dismiss him as the likely custodian of said aim.

Still, his choice of words is telling. Were there to be a common anthem for this campaign, it would be “Make the world go away”.

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To be quite clear, I am not remotely chiding the politicians for this. These are, one hopes, unique circumstances. Pandemic anxiety is real, tangible and enduring. It is entirely right for politicians, collectively and singularly, to respond.

Still, it has made for a bizarre campaign, now drawing towards its close. No public meetings, very little in the way of doorstep campaigning or lively street encounters.

Canvassers may distribute leaflets which are either read avidly or recycled in accordance with local authority guidance. If they spot a citizen, they can shout over the hedge, hoping to press home their financial strategy before the voter scurries in to catch the end of EastEnders.

Mostly, though, they confine themselves to non-threatening generalities. Again understandably, they are (all) timid on tax and (all) generous with public cash, most notably for the NHS.

Even the Greens, with their double act leadership, modulate their instinctive radicalism a little. Aware of the need to placate voters, they offer one return flight to the sun each year, free from their planned frequent flyer levy.

However, for our politicians, there are other reasons to feel constrained. Other anchors dragging them back from their intuitive desire to move on, to project momentum.

The most palpably confined politician is Alex Salmond. On television, on the wireless, in my Herald podcast, everywhere, he is pursued by questions about his character.

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Even as he chides the media to “move on”, the inquiries about his past behaviour towards women persist. We hear his frustration but we also reflect that he is now leading a new party, to the exasperation of many in the SNP, as a consequence of turbulent events, not a considered, agreed plan.

Others, though, are also constrained. Consider Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader. Every time he appears, offering to save the Union, we discern over his shoulder a tousle-haired spectre, the denizen of Number Ten.

Admittedly, Mr Ross has not had to share a platform with the Prime Minister in this Scottish campaign. Boris Johnson has remained south of the Border, defending himself in the Commons or admiring the wallpaper in his Downing Street flat.

In his gloomier moments, Mr Ross must occasionally wonder whether it is too late to revive Murdo Fraser’s notion of renaming the Scottish Tories and loosening their ties with the party in England. Then he shrugs off such defeatist talk with the courageous chutzpah which has become his trademark. (For a definition of “courageous”, see Yes Minister.)

Anas Sarwar has burdens of his own, mostly deriving from the history of Scottish Labour, the party he has led for a few weeks.

To be fair, Labour’s hegemony in Scotland was always somewhat over-stated. Under the UK voting system, they piled up seats in the populous central belt, relying upon traditional patterns of support. But large swathes of Scotland remained resistant to their charm, while that easy urban, proletarian dominance left the party flaccid; a target for eventual ousting by the SNP.

Labour, let us not forget, has declined at every Holyrood election since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999. What a falling off was there. Reflecting that, Mr Sarwar pursues this election’s pattern of disavowal.

“First Minister? Me? Behave yourself!” He seeks, instead, to offer a cogent new opposition at Holyrood. It is, in itself, a courageous strategy (for definition, see above.) If pushed too assiduously, the voters may look elsewhere for leadership.

Then there is Nicola Sturgeon. She too feels constrained. Like the party she leads, she yearns for independence. It shapes and defines her politics.

Yet she feels the need to hold back, to cosset a fretful, distressed electorate. At a cost to her own internal peace. Offering, say, to pursue indyref2 from day one of the new term might sate the zealous on her own side.

But it would, she calculates, do nothing to match the mood of a frankly frightened demos. Nor would it, she reckons, persuade the wavering and uncertain to shift, at this point.

So, instead, her catchword is experience. For troubled times. A coping, comforting strategy.

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