I AM not, I must confess, much of an expert on maritime propriety. Other than ferries or urban park rowing boats, my shipboard experience is decidedly limited.

In my youth, I voyaged aboard the MS Dunera on a school trip to Leningrad (as it was then known) from Dundee (as it is still known.) Despite the cramped conditions and challenging cuisine, I look back fondly on that sojourn.

Many decades later, I was cajoled to cruise the eastern Mediterranean. I recall that the captain mustered a reception, attended by roughly half the ship’s passengers. (No doubt, part two was held the following evening.)

In advance of the frivolity, it was solemnly announced over the intercom that the captain would not be shaking hands with any of his guests. Like Rick in Casablanca, he preferred to keep his customers at a distance.

It was a question of confidence. The man at the helm could not fully trust the collective hygiene of those in his charge. This, I should stress, was long before Covid.

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Confidence. In comparable fashion this week, the commander of Scotland’s devolved governance, Nicola Sturgeon, disclosed with a faintly ironic smile that it would be quite a while before she felt able to shake hands with anyone.

Think of the implications. Politician gives up shaking hands? What next? Is kissing babies to be banned? Well, now you come to mention it…..

Confidence. Ms Sturgeon was simply making a personal declaration of what we are all sensing. Uncertain, unsure, anxious.

Seventeen months on from the advent of this hideous plague, and we still feel fretful. We keep our distance from each other. We wear exasperating masks. We look with suspicion at each and every substance we might touch.

Our confidence is shot. In my view, an entirely rational or intuitive response to an evident, lasting but imperceptible threat. Our animal instinct is to assess and survive, to crouch and cower. Whatever Sajid Javid might think and, unwisely, say.

Mr Javid aside, one can witness this phenomenon extending into political life. There is less bogus certainty, less emphatic asseveration. More in the way of modified, qualified comments.

For example, I have now lost count of the number of times Nicola Sturgeon has declared that her general approach has changed. When, in the past, she might have been overly combative and partisan, she now openly recognises that such a demeanour is highly inappropriate in the face of this deadly disease.

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More, she finds familiar political discourse, with its certainty that your side is right, that evil resides with your rivals, to be tiresome and futile.

There are still exceptions, of course. She cannot resist heaping a degree of contumely upon Douglas Ross, in response to comparable rhetoric from the Tory leader.

In addition, I imagine that there will be a fair degree of partisanship in her conference address next month. Restless delegates will settle for nothing less.

In this context, what are we to make of Boris Johnson? His default tone is frequently bombast. His standard tactic to deride and lampoon, with metaphors stretched so far beyond endurance that even he looks bemused.

This can land him in trouble, most notably with his comment this week that Margaret Thatcher bolstered attempts to constrain climate change by closing coal mines. No doubt it was calculated irony. Most observers thought it crass.

However, I suspect that there is more uncertainty and turmoil in the Prime Minister’s core than might appear from his comments and newspaper columns. This, after all, is the man who apparently wrote alternative versions of his views on the EU, before opting for Leave.

His news conference statements on coronavirus have featured more subtlety and disquiet than is generally recognised. That is because he tends to over-accentuate the positive, while playing down the caveats. Ms Sturgeon does the opposite.

For both leaders, though, the enduring challenge of coronavirus trumps standard political imperatives. Around us, thousands are still falling ill. Many are still succumbing to this persistent virus. As I write, the global death toll is 4.26m. When you read this, it will be more.

Nicola Sturgeon knows that she must continue to sustain and strengthen morale in Scotland. In her statement this week, she signalled a new initiative to work with business to boost confidence in pursuit of future economic growth.

Within that, there is a continuing debate as to whether there should be a general return to office, rather than home, working. Ms Sturgeon favoured a “new normal” hybrid, with an emphasis on caution.

We might note in passing that those with a choice are fortunate. You cannot dig the roads from home, nor clean hospital wards.

An economic upturn, more generally, will require a continuing return of consumer confidence. Which requires constant endeavour to subdue the plague. By vaccination, by lasting caution, even as the formal constraints are loosened.

In particular, it requires Scotland, collectively, to imbue our young people with the confidence to come forward and receive their inoculations, now extended to 16 and 17 year olds.

Confidence, too, is at the core of the discourse over whether to mandate virus passports or certificates, for domestic use, rather than purely in global travel.

I understand the appeal. I also understand the disquiet. The worry about unfairness and inequality, the reluctance to show papers to authority on demand.

This is highly unlikely to happen for public services but perhaps, steadily, commercial venues might find their own confidence and that of their customers boosted by requesting such documents.

However, the most challenge issue of confidence we face is in our schools. Our young people have endured disruption and turmoil at the very point in their lives when they yearn for reassurance and certainty.

We need, again collectively, to continue to offer the necessary support, in a calm, measured fashion. We need to cool the hyperbole about educational transformation.

Yes, reform is needed, reform is coming in the wake of the OECD report, but it should be implemented gradually, in tandem with the needs of pupils, not as some form of fascinating, remote experiment.

Measured and confident.

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