I WAS puzzled by some of the Unionist responses after Nicola Sturgeon criticised the lamentable state of the opposition at Holyrood. They seemed to imply that the First Minister was blaming Labour and the Tories for the failings of her government. Yet this, I think, was one of those very rare occasions when you actually could take a politician’s observations at face value.

Sturgeon effectively accused Holyrood’s main opposition parties of going through the motions. In more gnarly terms, she was saying they were a lazy shower of wage thieves. “They don’t aspire to be in government,” she said. “Now, all of that may be good for the SNP. But it’s bad for democracy. Oppositions hungry to be in government are more effective. And effective opposition matters in a democracy.”

If you closed your eyes for a moment you might even imagine that the First Minister was missing Ruth Davidson. The former Scottish Tory leader was nothing if not well-briefed and eloquent and occasionally made Sturgeon work hard for her money. When Davidson’s successor Douglas Ross rises to his feet, you often find yourself beginning to experience feelings of guilt. Merely watching these encounters makes you feel more like an accessory than a witness.

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Since becoming leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Anas Sarwar seems to have disappeared. Great things were expected of him as he too is a fine communicator who has had his moments. Sturgeon even helped make his path into leadership a little less fraught than it otherwise may have been by referring to him as “my friend”.

Some of us thought that Sarwar might at least have considered offering a little more nuance in his party’s approach to the question of a second independence referendum. Scottish Labour’s decade in the political wilderness has largely been caused by turning itself into a party of arch-Unionists.

When some of their number such as Monica Lennon and Neil Findlay indicated that Labour should drop its opposition to a second referendum they were targeted from within their own party by a campaign of threat and intimidation co-ordinated by senior figures. Yet Sarwar, since his election as leader, has wrapped himself even more tightly in the Union flag. The appearance of Gordon Brown at his side during May’s election didn’t help him either. His recent performances at First Minister’s Questions suggest a man who is already beginning to wonder if it’s worth the trouble.

It’s difficult to argue with the thrust of Sturgeon’s words here. And it’s difficult too to escape the conclusion that the SNP (though not the independence cause) have been the beneficiaries of the opposition’s failings. A mediocre opposition, one which you know is incapable of scrutinising your legislation, encourages mediocrity in your own ranks.

The First Minister’s appeal to find a better way of doing politics might also apply to her own coterie of acolytes in Holyrood, Westminster and Glasgow City Council. These too indulge in adolescent behaviour on social media with comments and tweets that appear to carry the sole purpose of helping them win favour at the court of their political leader. It’s desperate, desperate stuff.

They also seem to have been given a specific mission to troll anyone who disagrees with the boss. Their most common tactic is to accuse pro-independence commentators of being Labour shills. It’s now not enough merely to espouse support for an independent Scotland, you must do so according to a laid-down compendium of words and phrases.

This was recently observed in reasonable criticism of the state of some of Glasgow’s streets. To anyone who lives in Glasgow or works in the city this has been evident for some time. One of the reasons why the SNP were able to oust so many Labour politicians in Glasgow was because these tribunes had lately come to regard their constituencies as their own personal fiefdoms. They were rarely seen in these neighbourhoods until the time came for them to collect the votes that would entitle them to another well-paid term in Westminster.

In the defensive responses to criticism of Glasgow’s neglect you began to detect something of that same complacency among some SNP figures. Alarmingly, it suggested that some of them have now also become detached from the reality on the ground.

THE same pattern of abusive attacks on anyone deemed not to be on-message has been evident in the debate around the SNP’s proposed gender reforms. Dozens of women have found themselves targeted and falsely accused of transphobia simply for expressing reasonable and valid concerns about the potential impact of gender self-identification on their sex-based rights. The way in which the SNP leadership seems to have endorsed these attacks is troubling for anyone who is beginning to think about how a second referendum campaign will unfold.

The wider Yes movement was very successful at the 2014 referendum. In the course of a single year the pro-independence campaign gained almost 20 percentage points. They achieved this in the face of a Unionist campaign backed by every artifice the might of the British state could muster: every main Unionist party, the royal family, almost the entire UK press, the BBC, big finance and all of the UK’s defence chiefs.

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The Yes campaign dismantled much of the propaganda and devoured it. This was mainly through the efforts of thousands of volunteers who literally put in full-time shifts. My concern is this: how many of those volunteers have become so sickened by the party’s cultural agenda and the abuse that comes pouring forth from the First Minister’s friends and supplicants that they will be less than willing to do what needs to be done during indyref2.

Many of the SNP party loyalists lack the intellect and creativity to argue the finer points of independence under cross-examination on radio and television. How many of them were saved from certain humiliation by the research and rigour of Wings Over Scotland’s Wee Blue Book? A six-week Holyrood election campaign is a hippie festival compared to the bear pit of a referendum on the break-up of the UK.

Rather than aim childish insults at all the former activists who have found refuge from the personal vindictiveness in Alba, they should pay heed to Nicola Sturgeon’s own words aimed at the main Holyrood opposition parties: “It is crude. It lacks principle or consistency and it is utterly counter-productive. The country deserves so much better than that.

"The times we are living through and the challenges we face demand a better way of doing politics.”