WHAT’S the difference between Alex Cole-Hamilton and Daniel Johnson? This is not an invitation for readers to write to The Herald’s letters pages, not least because I can answer the question for you: not all that much.

Of course Mr Cole-Hamilton and Mr Johnson may have slightly different views at the margins, but on the core issues of how to run the economy, how to run the health service, how to run the education system, how to tackle climate change and so on, I rather suspect the pair have considerably more that unites them than that which divides them.

This is what political parties are. A collection of people who have more in common with each other than not, battling against other parties who have markedly different ideas on how to run the country.

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Indeed, if Mr Cole-Hamilton and Mr Johnson were in any other European country, they probably would be in the same party. In Sweden’s Riksdag, these men would likely sit alongside each other in the Social Democrat party; in Holland’s House of Representatives I suspect they would be colleagues in Democraten 66; in France they’d have been followers of Emmanuel Macron as he formed La République En Marche and took it to power.

In Scotland, however, they sit on opposite sides of the chamber, in parties placed third and fifth in Holyrood’s hierarchy.

Even the most optimistic observer would question whether either of these young men, with decades left in politics should they wish to continue to engage in the professional masochism of being an elected representative, will ever see their political parties enjoying a period of government in Scotland.

Mr Cole-Hamilton is an MSP representing the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a party which never had more than 20 seats even in its Holyrood heyday of the early 2000s, and which has never recovered from the electoral consequences of its Westminster sister party’s decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

Since the 2016 Holyrood elections, when it returned five MSPs, its polling has rarely and barely lifted itself out of single figures. The Lib Dems might squeeze an extra MSP or two in next May’s election, but in the grand scheme of things this is not a party which is going places.

Nor, strange as it still feels to write this in Scotland, is the Labour Party, amongst whose number is Mr Johnson. The downfall of Labour in Scotland has been brutal and swift, and there is plenty evidence that it is permanent. Labour, whose traditional supporters amongst the urban left have now invariably shifted towards nationalism, is destined to be a supporting actor in Scotland’s constitutional epic, neither as unionist as the Conservatives nor as nationalist as the SNP, and so, not a factor.

Mr Johnson himself has cut an unsettled figure over the last few years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and his relief at Keir Starmer’s election victory was almost tangible. But whilst Sir Keir’s ascent places him as a credible Prime Minister, here in Scotland it is impossible, realistically, to see any Labour leader, Richard Leonard or otherwise, making his or her way to Bute House.

So, what to do?

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Well, I have written on these pages before about unionism’s historic mistake, which was to implant its Westminster political party structure onto the Scottish Parliament. By mirroring the UK parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems have placed their own necks in a noose, with their fate almost entirely dependent on that of their sister-party. The near decapitation of the Lib Dems in 2011, a direct response to Nick Clegg’s coalition, is perhaps the most obvious and devastating exhibit of evidence of this.

Because of this fact, and it is a fact borne out by real events over two decades, a good start for Labour and the Lib Dems would be to break this vicious cycle. And they should break the cycle together. The practical implementation of a Social Democrat Party in this country has a chequered past, however in order to understand and remember the Social Democrats as an electoral option one must be aged at least 50.

There is, in my view, space and appetite for renewal in Scottish politics and the ability to vote for a specifically Scottish party which combines the best traditions of social democracy inherent in the Liberal Democrats and Labour is likely to be an attractive proposition not only to those who vote for these parties now, but also to many supporters of the Scottish National Party, itself a party run on social democrat ideology.

In the future, at least.

It is fair to read this article and say “what difference will that make?”, because for as long as we have a political discourse based on Scotland’s constitutional future then the electorate with gather round the two poles of that debate, with the SNP being the nationalist pole and, unless the Lib Dems and Labour unwisely adopt a more uncompromising position, the Tories as the Unionist pole.

However, at some point, we will stop this. Most probably after a second independence referendum, and irrespective of the result of that poll, we will stop defining ourselves as either nationalist or unionist, and instead look again to a more sustainable model of politics based on policy ideas.

This is where a party such as the Social Democrats might find itself playing a central role; a governing role. Indeed, were it to combine its philosophical outlook with a more sustainable constitutional outlook based on a looser, more localist structure to the UK, it could itself speed up that transition.

Ultimately, this article is probably as far as this idea will go. Good ideas tend to die inside political parties, because the very people who resist radical change which would be popular with the country are those inside the parties, by definition not a reliable cross-section of society, who fail to see the selfish hopelessness of their endeavour. We saw this a decade ago with the Tory party.

But from the outside looking in, the future of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats on their own is not hard to see. They both have some good people, with bright futures. But this town ain’t big enough for the both of them.

• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.