When the focus of Scottish politics shifted to Liam McArthur’s Member’s Bill proposing to legalise assisted dying, my heart sank a little, weighed down by cynicism. We have become highly adept at turning debates over any and every issue into new fronts for bitter, polarised political conflict. Surely the debate over assisted dying would become the latest to be buried beneath an avalanche of invective?

But I have been temporarily disabused of that cynicism. We have been able to navigate the opening of this sensitive, nuanced discussion around assisted dying with the dignity, intelligence, and open-mindedness that it deserves. All while simultaneously blowing up over new hate crimes laws, the final report of the Cass Review of youth gender identity services, and woodburning stoves of all things.

What is different about the issue of assisted dying? It is no more or less prone to becoming a culture war flashpoint than any of the other issues that have been in Scotland in the past half-decade; one need only look to how Canada’s assisted dying laws have become a favourite target of the far right around the world to see that. In a nation whose political life has revolved around slowly intensifying affective polarisation in the post-2014 era, there is no obvious reason why assisted dying would not be weaponised.

The constitutional question has become less central in recent years, true, with the SNP Government hitting a brick wall in its pursuit of independence. But the lines drawn along the constitutional divide during the independence referendum have long since ossified into divides defined not by considered policy preferences but by narrow ideological and highly personalised animosities.

Those divides remain as charged as ever and have been compounded by the emergence of new cleavages within the independence movement, cracked apart by frustration with the lack of progress towards independence and routine culture war conflagrations.

That means that most emotive issues come to be marshalled to the service of partisan politics. Arguments follow partisanship, becoming mere post hoc rationalisations for standing with one’s fellow partisans and against one’s long-standing opponents, aided and abetted by the weaponisation (consciously or otherwise) of misinformation that happens to support one’s side.

Consider the new hate crimes law. As the journalist David Leask put it, the partisan politicking around it and the degree to which misinformation has become dominant on both sides amounts to a “misinformation event”. The routine and repeated use of what are - let’s be blunt - lies to shore up partisan positions has drowned out reasonable objections to and support of the new law and its implementation.

Moreover, it has had a real impact on public services, including Police Scotland who were deluged with (often vexatious) allegations of hate crimes of which, in the law’s first week in force, less than 4% were identified as actually constituting a potential hate crime.

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As valiant as the efforts of legal scholars like Michael Foran, Andrew Tickell, and Professors James Chalmers and Adam Tomkins - the Justice Committee’s convener during the new law’s passage through Holyrood - to explain the new law have been, they have amounted to whispering into a gale.

And while there are perfectly legitimate criticisms to be made of how so-called "non-crime hate incidents" are recorded - a practice that long pre-dates the new law - the sight of a senior MSP questioning Police Scotland’s independence from the SNP on that basis demonstrates how quickly partisanship inserts itself into the heart of these discussions.

On hate crime, the Cass Review, gender recognition reform, and a host of other issues it has been depressingly easy to guess exactly what side any given politician, activist, or commentator will position themselves on by simply considering whether they like or dislike Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf, or the SNP.

Affective polarisation, based entirely on such highly personalised divides, sits at the heart of Scottish partisan politics and culture war conflict. Assisted dying is different not because the issue itself is unique in some way, but because how it has been introduced has neutralised affective polarisation.

Firstly, the proposed changes to the law come in a Member’s Bill: they are not being proposed by the Scottish Government and the SNP. Moreover, the MSP who introduced the Bill is a Liberal Democrat, and with all due respect to Mr McArthur and his party, few people involved in Scottish political activism have strong feelings towards the Liberal Democrats.

Secondly, support for and opposition to the bill within Holyrood does not break cleanly along partisan divides. The First Minister and the leaders of the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour all oppose the bill, while dozens of MSPs across all the parties supported the bill’s introduction.

And thirdly, the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made public her concerns about the bill and called on her constituents with views to contact her to discuss it. If there is a single personality at the heart of affective polarisation in Scotland, it is Ms Sturgeon, whether that can be laid at her feet or not. Now many of those partisans committed in their opposition to her and her party find themselves agreeing with her.

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon has given her view on the Assisted Dying BillNicola Sturgeon has given her view on the Assisted Dying Bill (Image: PA)

The role of what is known as "elite signalling", in which partisans take their cues from political leaders, in activating affective polarisation to mobilise partisans cannot be overstated. In this case, there is no clear line to be walked. In its absence, we are left with our personal beliefs and our conscience.

There remains plenty of time for the assisted dying debate to become weaponised. It would not surprise me if it does. While I may not be as cynical about our ability to have a reasoned and reasonable debate over such issues as I was, I remain strongly sceptical.

We all have experience of death, most of us have experience of watching a loved one suffer as they slowly approach the end, and we will all die. The question of legalising assisted dying touches all our lives in an intimate way. It is an emotional and difficult question to address.

That we have been able to do so, so far, with dignity and nuance gives me some hope. If we can conclude this debate with that dignity intact, we can do so on any other issue, and my faith in the Scottish body politic would be renewed.