COULD this plague-beset election get any more surreal? At the SNP manifesto launch, Nicola Sturgeon felt it germane to disavow the prospect of an arm-wrestling contest with a fellow advocate of independence.

OK, she did not name her putative opponent. (It was Alex Salmond.) And she made plain she was not remotely interested. (I reckon she was sorely tempted.)

Seriously, Ms Sturgeon was making a pertinent point. Which is that a staged fight over who is the most avid for independence might momentarily amuse the zealous, as they formed a ring, chanting “fight, fight, fight.”

She noted, however, that it would do nothing to impress those who remain unpersuaded by the merits of independence in the first place. They might simply turn away, faintly nauseated.

Which is why the leitmotif of Ms Sturgeon’s launch was continuity. As it has been for the entire campaign thus far.

That seems to me particularly apt this week. Today brings the funeral service for the Duke of Edinburgh. The arrangements are, inevitably and rightly, suppressed by Covid.

But, still, the gathering at Windsor offers a visible reminder of the core constitutional continuity presented by the Royal Family, alongside the collective desire to give thanks for a life of long and devoted service.

Events occasionally conspire, Oprah Winfrey et al, to make many of us contemplate the Royal Family as if they were stars in a soap opera, a source of innocent merriment or exaggerated empathy.

They are, of course, much more. They are “the firm”. They are the much-altered but still salient Royal prerogative. They are the palpable core of the United Kingdom.

When party leaders at Holyrood paid tribute this week, it was left to Patrick Harvie of the Greens to note, en passant, that support for the institution of Monarchy was not universal in Scotland. However, he subsumed this Republican thought beneath personal sympathy for the Queen and her family.

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Nicola Sturgeon sounded a genuine, personal note as she evinced admiration for the wit and intellect of the Duke, whom she met frequently at Balmoral and elsewhere. They shared, she disclosed, an intense interest in books.

But her general theme was, again, one of continuity. The Duke’s role as a constant companion to the Queen, the cherry trees they planted in the grounds of Canongate Kirk, which she hoped would thrive and bloom for many years.

Of all the sundry institutions which comprise the UK State, it has long struck me that the Palace gets devolution best. Perhaps alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which, as one mandarin once told me with a wry grin, is well used to dealing with troublesome colonies.

The Palace appreciates the need to work with the UK’s devolved apparatus. For example, the Sovereign regularly travels to her palace of Holyroodhouse to welcome new First Ministers from over the road, rather than obliging them to sojourn to London.

While representing continuity, the Palace is adaptable. Within limits, it moves with the times, often cajoled down the decades by the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen’s own speeches to the Scottish Parliament constantly endorse devolved governance.

However, the Queen has also been known, very occasionally, to express disquiet at potential constitutional change.

In 1977, as Scottish devolution was under active discourse, the Sovereign said she could readily understand such aspirations but could not forget that she was “crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

More recently, in 2014, days before the independence referendum, the Queen was also in contemplative mood, perhaps prompted by advisers. Asked about the ballot by a by-stander outside Crathie Kirk, she said that she hoped people would think very carefully about the future.

Nicola Sturgeon thoroughly understands this nuanced approach by the wary Palace to the malleable UK constitution.

She studiously avoids placing any question marks against the Regal Union of 1603. She is not about to pick a fight, arm wrestling or otherwise, with the Monarchy.

However, she does maintain a standing challenge to the Parliamentary Union of 1707. She does want, in the word of the moment, to affect transformational change there.

Yet she also understands that, right now, the people of Scotland remain deeply, deeply apprehensive and unsure about their future.

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They contemplate the pandemic, this hideous plague, and they fret. They also cast their minds back to the banking crisis of 2008, from which we have yet to recover. They consider too the disruption of Brexit, which may or may not resolve itself.

Folk need reassurance. Which is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon was attempting to offer this week, most notably with regard to indyref2 but also in her policies on income tax.

Ms Sturgeon declared that tackling Covid must come first, with indyref2 on hold until the middle of the new Parliament. She opts for popular pragmatism. She calculates that there is little to be gained from evoking the spirit of William Wallace, or even Robert the Bruce.

Once more, it is easy to understand why this might exasperate the most eager adherents of the independence cause. Incidentally, it also irks the Conservatives who yearn for constitutional wrestling; arms, feet, whatever.

This week, also, there was some passing interest in a poll which suggested that fewer than one in five of the Scottish population ranked independence as among the most important issues at this election.

That did not surprise me. Constitutional questions, even independence, are generally second order matters, unless a population is actively experiencing oppression, either physical or spiritual.

By “second order”, I do not remotely intend to say that such matters are unimportant. Merely that they are different, that they are regarded by the people as conduits towards the issues which dominate their thoughts, such as employment, health and security.

That is the error the Tories previously made when they used to say that devolution was never raised on the doorsteps. They needed to ask a second question: how best might you address the concerns you have raised?

Nicola Sturgeon gets that distinction. She understands the yearning for stability in a time of turmoil. That is why her offer, for the most enthusiastic fans of independence, is Paradise Deferred.

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