ONLY a week into a new year and already old chestnuts are being tossed in the air – a unionist pact to defeat the SNP, a new centre-right party to replace the Scottish Conservatives, devo max to sate the appetite of the ‘indy curious’ and, inevitably, the continuous loop of another independence referendum.

All these ideas are about political process. None addresses the immediate challenges facing people in Scotland, or identifies the opportunities for raising their standard of living. They’re political escapism.

Escapism is ‘a tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities’. Scotland’s political class elevates this activity into an art form. It’s easier to engage in constitutional navel-gazing than to come up with original ideas for improving the performance of the economy or public services.

Four years ago the Scottish Policy Foundation was established to address this dearth of fresh thinking. The aim was to stimulate the market for policy ideas in Scotland, providing funding for think tanks to undertake research and explore how devolved powers could be used more effectively.

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A cross-party advisory board was recruited to ensure the Foundation’s impartiality and focus its work on promoting good government in Scotland. The members included former Labour Cabinet Minister Douglas Alexander, former ambassador Lord Kerr, former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, former SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson, former Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia and – full disclosure – me.

Plenty of applications were received. Some were funded and provided a modest, but still valuable, contribution to public debate. Most were stronger on diagnosing problems than providing practical solutions. All were worthy but ‘safe’ – working within a prevailing consensus, rather than challenging it.

And that’s what is lacking in Scotland right now – a genuine clash of ideas. What’s the right role for government in the 21st century? What are the real trade-offs between different levels of spending and tax? Where does personal responsibility end and government intervention begin? What is the right balance between central and local decision-making? Unfortunately political debate in Scotland today is a stagnant pond, desperately needing an injection of something fresh.

This is a sad state of affairs for the nation of the Scottish Enlightenment, chronicled by the American academic Arthur Herman in his popular book ambitiously subtitled The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. What’s beyond doubt is that Scottish ideas during the 18th and early 19th centuries exerted a wider influence, which was disproportionate to the nation’s size and wealth. It’s hard to imagine today’s introspective Scotland being such an influential thought-leader.

Conventional wisdom is lazily accepted without challenge. Consider the following statements: the fundamental divide in Scottish politics is no longer between left and right but yes and no; support for the Scottish Conservatives has a high floor but a low ceiling; only a government led by Scottish Labour could provide a credible alternative to the SNP. Few would dissent from these assumptions.

Why? After all it used to be conventional wisdom that a one-party majority under the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system was unattainable, Labour losing 40 of their 41 Scottish Westminster seats unthinkable and the Tories as Holyrood’s official opposition inconceivable.

It certainly suits the SNP to keep the constitution at the centre of political debate. They’re the main beneficiaries of the yes/no divide. So why on earth would it be in the interests of any unionist party to help them perpetuate this state of affairs? By the time of the next Holyrood elections, the SNP will have been in government for 19 years. Nicola Sturgeon, if she sticks around, will have been First Minister for 12 years and be asking for 5 more. There will be no COVID bounce to help her. She will be defending a dismal record of non delivery as long as your arm. The unionist parties must fight Holyrood 2026 as a ‘time for change’ in government election.

The Scottish Conservatives have also benefited from constitutional politics. By presenting themselves as the most robust defenders of the Union, they won a record number of seats in 2016 and held on to them in 2021. To confound the ‘low ceiling’ theorists they need to broaden their base of support – winning back, a decade after the event, middle class voters alienated by Brexit and securing new support among working class voters who share many of the party’s core values. Not easy, but not implausible.

Their prospects will be influenced by the Conservative Government’s performance, particularly how sensitively it handles its responsibilities towards Scotland. After exploring the disastrous cul-de-sac of ‘muscular unionism’, the UK Government, under Michael Gove’s guidance, is developing a more engaged and co-operative approach to the union. Moreover the Johnson Government is not conventionally Tory. At the next General Election its policy prospectus will be targeted towards retaining the support of Red Wall voters, whose concerns are similar to the Scottish voters Douglas Ross needs to win over.

Ross has been written off too quickly by many. Ruth Davidson struggled for a couple of years before she hit her stride. And Ross has faced the added difficulty that he became leader during the pandemic. He’s tough, principled and down to earth, and possessing a lively wit, which could be developed into a potent political weapon. And like Davidson, he doesn’t fit the caricature of a Tory painted by the party’s opponents.

Labour, meanwhile, are still in denial about how they lost their Scottish stronghold. They continue to take for granted that Labour values – whatever they are these days – are also Scotland’s. And they hope another ‘offer’ of yet more powers will provide them with a distinctive edge.

Surely the task of the next five years is to rediscover how the UK’s nations and regions can work together more closely on practical initiatives of mutual benefit, not take more steps leading to their further estrangement? Scotland needs bold, fresh policy ideas in 2022, not more constitutional navel-gazing.

Andrew Dunlop was an adviser to former Conservative prime minister David Cameron during the 2014 independence referendum