“THERE are no characters in politics these days”, was how the conversation began. In the good old days, the argument went, such people were able to avoid scrutiny of their personal lives, whereas these days standing for election means a forensic examination of the candidate's past.

I wasn't quite sure I followed. Surely it's the case that many of our MSPs – especially those elected via regional lists – would struggle to get recognised in their local Tesco? And even those who are reasonably well known are able to keep their personal lives private. Many Scots would struggle to name Nicola Sturgeon's husband, let alone the civilian spouses of anyone else.

“You mean people with skeletons in their closet are being put off?” I asked, wondering why that was such a bad thing. I was dismissed with a wave of the hand and a lament that the “best people” were definitely being deterred from putting their heads above the parapet and our politics was suffering as a result.

I raised an eyebrow. Maybe it's thanks to my state-school education, or my excellent taste in friends, but I don't move in the kind of circles where folk talk openly about “the best people”. I certainly don't often find myself in situations where people are speaking about “the best people” and are referring to themselves.

These best people, as far as I could ascertain, were those with colourful pasts – and indeed often colourful presents – who sought power and influence but were less keen on the glare of attention that might come with it. The best politicians were those who weren't afraid to step out of line and make names for themselves. The firebrand orators who earned respect across the political spectrum. The “big beasts” jockeying for position in the Cabinet. The mavericks speaking up for what they believed in even if doing so set them on a collision course with party colleagues. (Or, a cynic might add, whatever it suited them to believe in at any given moment that would earn them positive column inches and boost their personal profile.)

I wanted to make sure I understood who exactly the best politicians were, so I asked for some examples. A list of names from days of yore was duly reeled off: man after man after man, many of whom had found themselves in the tabloid cross-hairs at some point or other, back in the days when print journalism was thriving and investigation budgets were much healthier. These days, I was told, these kinds of characters simply wouldn't subject themselves to the even more intense personal probing that comes with being involved in top-level politics. Now there's nowhere to hide.

“I noticed you didn't mention any women,” I chipped in again, like a wee wasp buzzing in his ear. I was met with bluster and splutter and a list of some notable female figures. But it felt telling that none of these had merited inclusion in the earlier list. These were not the thrusting, swaggering, chest-beating types who dominated a room simply by walking into it. They might have had intelligence, charisma and political savvy in spades, and they might have fought hard for their principles, but they did so in a very different style to their male contemporaries.

Perhaps, I gently suggested, it was time for a rethink about who the greatest politicians might be, and what personal and professional qualities should be the most valued both by the parties selecting them and the electorate endorsing them. Is the best political operator the one with the booming voice who intimidates allies and opponents alike, or the one who works skilfully and diligently behind the scenes to establish consensus around thorny issues? Should we elevate the one with a reputation for bullying subordinates and blowing his top, rather than the one who sensitively assists constituents and treats her junior colleagues with respect?

No-one apart from publicans operating in close proximity to parliaments should bemoan the evaporation of a work-hard, drink-hard political culture underpinned by a “what happens in Westminster stays in Westminster” policy when it comes to personal morality. The notion that the best politicians are men drunk on power, to whom women are magnetically and irresistibly drawn, belongs in the past. As long as this stereotype persists, efforts to promote more diversity in politics will fail, because candidates of both sexes who don't fit the mould will struggle. It takes a strong character to swim against the tide, and an even stronger one to criticise a style of politics that might have served close colleagues very well. Joining them might prove easier than trying to beat them, or trying to change a culture that is hopelessly outdated but deeply ingrained.

It's often mused that the best politicians would be those whose humility prevents them from stepping forward in the first place. If those with super-sized egos are now thinking twice due to fear of past indiscretions becoming public, perhaps that's no great loss.