Parliament, they like to say, is a bubble.

Whether it’s Holyrood or Westminster, those on its benches inhabit a different reality from the rest of us.

That was certainly confirmed by Mhairi Black in a recent interview when, speaking about her time in the SNP, she reflected on feeling  “uncomfortable” at the “cult of personality” surrounding Nicola Sturgeon. 

Read more: Mhairi Black on Nicola Sturgeon and a 'cult of personality'

Despite describing Sturgeon as “one of the best, if not the best, performing politicians that I’ve seen,” Black said that Sturgeon’s resignation was “healthy” for the party, since it allowed it to focus more on policy and less on personality.

Ironically Black, who will be standing down as an MP at the general election, is not without personality herself. Her fearlessness and straight-talking played a large part in her electoral success.

The Herald: Mhairi Black speaking in the House of CommonsMhairi Black speaking in the House of Commons (Image: PA)

What struck me about her comments, however, was that for an ordinary voter like me, with no inside track on how the SNP functioned during Sturgeon’s term in office, there was never any sense of a cult. 

When she first became Deputy Leader of the SNP, she was rather shy and awkward. It took years for her to become sufficiently confident to relax and allow her personality to shine.

Admittedly, public admiration for Sturgeon’s political skills soared during the Covid crisis, when her approval ratings were high even among diehard unionists. With her directness and clarity, she impressed people across the political board, who recognised a politician working her socks off to do their best for the country. 

But a cult? Did some mysterious, magnetising force emanate from Sturgeon whenever she stepped up to the podium?

Were party members breathless at the opportunity to meet her? Did crowds gather on the streets of the Royal Mile to cheer her passing in the ministerial car? If so, I missed it.

Read more: Will Mhairi Black bid to become First Minister of Scotland in 2024?

What I do remember is that when in public, and on the few occasions I met her, she could hardly have been more down to earth or self-effacing.

Limelight for Sturgeon was a necessary part of the job, but rather than basking in its glare, she always seemed relieved when she could step off stage

The same could not be said of Alex Salmond. What was the SNP under his leadership but a sort of personality cult? And was it successful? Indeed it was, in a way rarely seen before in Scottish politics.

His indisputable talents as a politician, and his ability to stand up to the big beasts of Westminster, especially those in the Labour party, created an aura of invincibility around him.

His swagger and self-confidence, which were backed up by solid political instincts and dedication to the cause, helped to carry the SNP mission further and faster than anybody had ever dared to dream.

The Herald: Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon

Now, while for many Salmond’s  glory has faded, for others he is like Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden: bloodied and bowed but a leader-in-waiting nevertheless. For them, as with Charles Edward Stuart, the cult lives on.

Meanwhile, we have Humza Yousaf, doing a good job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, yet constantly sniped at for lack of personality.

Of course Yousaf has personality, but you won’t get accusations of a cult around someone who is not on a winning streak (although that might change). The word only works when a leader’s fortunes are flying high.

You have to ask, what is it that voters  - and the political commentators they take their cue from - really want?

Would they prefer faceless bureaucrats in charge, people who are happier behind a desk than walking the streets of their constituencies where they risk ambush?   

Read more: Judges deliver scathing ruling after Nicola Sturgeon FOI battle

Was anybody excited when Rishi Sunak became prime minister, other than because he wasn’t Liz Truss or Boris Johnson? Both of them had personality in spades.

In fact, Boris Johnson only had personality, while Truss had a persona unique in the annals of Conservative leadership history. It defied description, other than being at the opposite end of the spectrum to charisma.  

Which brings me to Keir Starmer, who stands on the brink of becoming the next PM. He is sadly lacking in personality, unlike his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who – like Boris Johnson but in a completely different way – had too much character.

By contrast Starmer, in public at least, struggles to hold the attention. Whatever catalyst is required to turn a decent but unconvincing guy into a star act has yet to arrive from Amazon. 

So when it comes to personality, I disagree with Mhairi Black. In a political leader it is every bit as important as policies, if not more so.

The Herald: Humza Yousaf has been criticised for having no personalityHumza Yousaf has been criticised for having no personality

How can anybody persuade an electorate if they have the manner of an apparatchik? Surely it must be possible to have leaders with a demeanour people can warm to, yet who also have integrity and competence; whose promises can be trusted, and who in their own lives embody the principles required for high office.

And, crucially, who have a spark of life that enthuses people about their vision.

In times like these, politics needs people with true leadership qualities. What we do not want are snake-oil salesmen, who use their individuality to sell the populace a dream that bears little connection to reality. Who galvanise voters because of what they say, rather than what they do. 

Nor do we want charisma. The rise of leaders like Mussolini, Franco and Hitler was truly the stuff of cults. Hordes followed them blindly, as if bewitched. Which, in a way, they were.

In Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, an unconventional, charismatic teacher represents the malign power of someone capable of holding people in thrall. Who did she have in mind? Take your pick from the 20th century’s infamous roll-call. 

Read more: Humza Yousaf: Boosting living standards the 'prize of independence'

Such a personality is the opposite of what is required in today’s fragile, fractured world. We do not want the sort of behaviour that makes people overlook the message and follow unthinkingly in the speaker’s wake. That way lies Donald Trump’s second term as president.

We want leaders with demonstrable ability, determination, vision, honesty and a track record of hard graft. Also, the ability to inspire. 

It takes a strong personality to pull all these together. Yet without with this gift, politics would be utterly boring, and voters would melt away. The trick is getting the balance right: not too exciting, and not too dull.

 Tightrope walkers only need apply.