On the 23rd of June, the British people will cast their verdict on the UK's membership of the European Union. On Thursday the 5th of May, folk living in Scotland will determine the shape of Holyrood for the next half decade. With two months to go until the Scottish Parliament ballot boxes are opened, life is only now, only just, beginning to stir in the campaign. But for most of March and April, it seems likely that the dominance of UK media in the Scottish scene will ensure that there is an inevitable spill over of the EU referendum race into devolved elections.
This conjunction of political events prompted a grouchy letter from the heads of the devolved administrations some weeks back, concerned that the issues in their respective elections would be obscured by the EU poll. Nicola Sturgeon urged David Cameron to pick some other day, some other time, to put his compact to the test of popular opinion. SNP MPs groused about it extensively, in the first EU debate on the Prime Minister's draft deal with the governments of other EU states.
For my own part, I struggle to get worked up about this. From a - horrifically cynical - tactical perspective, political stasis remains Nicola Sturgeon's friend. The distractions of a parallel EU punch-up will, I should have thought, tend to help the Scottish Government perpetuate the political stasis which has gripped Scotland since 2014's indyref, and help the SNP to retain office. Is it pretty? No. Uplifting? Not a jot of it.
Kezia Dugdale is still gasping for political oxygen, gasping for a hearing, gasping for recognition. The antipathies towards Labour which recent events have engendered show no signs of abating. In parallel, the Liberal Democrats continue to hobble along, the walking wounded, bumping along the bottom of bare political viability.
The Greens have benefited from a merited boost from their new membership and cash and indyref advocacy -- but don't look likely to make swingeing inroads into the Nationalist vote. They'll peel off a few folk who'd like the government to be bolder in key areas, but they don't seem primed to carry off a substantial share in May. And despite winning the backing of a few SNP members like Jim Sillars -- RISE's ascent seems likely to be electorally minimal, and to win them no seats. As most of its harder-headed supporters recognise, on the current evidence, its fate in 2016 seems likely to mirror my last abortive attempt at a soufflé.
But one name we didn't find on Sturgeon's letter to the Prime Minister was self-proclaimed "blue collar Tory" and all round "good egg", Ruth Davidson. Not a peep of disgruntlement have we heard in public from the Scottish Tory leader. But I wonder if she has more cause than the First Minister to feel hacked off by the Prime Minister's decision to chuck her fragile Holyrood campaign under a bus.
Huge expectations have gathered behind Davidson. She represents more than a transitory Scottish Tory leader. She is the last best hope of the whole company. In defeating Darth Murdo Fraser, who insisted his comrades had to pack up and start again, Davidson contended that the Tories north of the border were not doomed to a slow death. Above and beyond everything else: the 2016 election campaign are the days that will try Ruth Davidson's soul. They represent the empirical testing of Darth Murdo's thesis. And if she can't win? If this leader can't make any significant progress? Then what?
Despite these undernotes of anxiety, Ruth Davidson continues to benefit from a marvellous press. Her chances in 2016 have been generously - or maliciously - talked up for some months now. For gentlemen of a certain age in the media, she remains irresistible. She has obvious talents. Drawing on her experiences as a broadcaster, she does a good turn on the radio and telly. She has an eye for an entertaining photo shoot. She doesn't seem to take herself deathly seriously. She tweets amiably. Her open and relaxed and public sexuality makes the whole thing feel contemporary in a way that a sixty year old Rotarian in a double breasted royal blue blazer inevitably could not. These are good things.
But strip away the veneer and the twinkle of the individual personality who can survive Have I Got News for You with credit -- and how far does it really go? We are told she is a new kind of Tory, a revelation, who has swept away the dead wood from her Holyrood group, and who is primed to lead a new generation of Scottish Conservatives into their best ever performance. Scratch the story, and you still find relatively little evidence (a) that the Scottish Tories on offer in May are radically new, or indeed, (b) that they are likely to find favour with a radically enhanced chunk of the electorate.
If pressed, Conservatives will often point to Professor Adam Tomkins as evidence of radical renewal. And whatever you make of him, Adam is a smart guy who would bring something idiosyncratic to Holyrood. But one professor does not structural change make. If depth and breadth is the thing: who else is new? There are stragglers. Individuals. But overall? Scrutinising the party's regional list, with its dismal lack of women of any stripe, and over-representation of the usual host of lawyers, bankers, business persons and land agents -- well, colour me skeptical. Blues, they may be, blue collar? Gie's peace.
And as far as I can see, Scottish Tories have made next to no effort in policy terms to lend much substance to the idea that they've reorientated their priorities from the very top of the economic tree to the bottom of middle. There are the "aspirational" grace notes around education, but beyond that? Understandably, and to some extent effectively, when Davidson is pressed on these issues in broadcasting studios, she reaches into her own biography.
"I'm not one of these snooty bastards", she says. "I'm not privately educated." I don't doubt this is true, and in Davidson's head, the argument well-meant and sincere. But if your platform remains consistent with playing servitor to the richer parts of society? If your policy priorities remain shifting social burdens away from a small slice of wealthy folk? This seems a fairly grisly way to use your working class biography. Scrub Ruth Davidson's blue collar - and the familiar whiter than white collar priorities of Scottish Toryism are quickly revealed. Perhaps her party's 2016 manifesto will dynamite this -- but I rather doubt it.
The reaction to the Scottish Government's recent council tax announcement seemed to me characteristic of the skin deep, merely rhetorical renewal which Davidson has - thus far - represented. Darth Murdo and others took to the airwaves to fill the political space they have traditionally occupied -- the spokespersons of wealth and established privilege. "Will nobody think of those in houses worth half a million quid?" *sniffle* "What about the 'squeezed middle' of folk earning many multiples of the average Scottish income of £27K a year?" Ruth Davidson's all new Conservatives: still washing those blue collars whiter.
But beyond this, I wonder if the EU poll date isn't more of a problem for Davidson than folk have recognised. Margaret Mitchell seems likely to be the solitary Scottish Tory to come out for Brexit. Davidson and her more prominent "new faces" are all lining up behind the Prime Minister, to argue that the UK should remain part of the European Union. For different reasons, I agree with them.
But you can bet your bottom dollar that many of Davidson's natural electors do not, wooed by the Euroskepticism of Boris and of Duncan Smith, and of Nigel Farage. For them, the whole Scottish election may seem to be framed by the wider context of the EU debate, its preoccupations and its priorities. And so imagine you are a EU skeptic Tory sympathiser, considering who to lend your vote to in May 2016, with the referendum pending. Do you plump for the squishy and provisional pro-EU position of your party leader? Or might you be tempted to splash out on a UKIP vote instead?
In terms of the final outcome of the EU referendum, none of this might matter. But the future of Scottish Conservatism is being judged by slender margins. If Davidson and her colleagues lose even a few percentage points to UKIP, the boasts of unprecedented successes, and Davidson's own status as a fundamental jolt to Tory fortunes in Scotland, risk being dramatically undermined. Sturgeon may have put her name to the letter, protesting about David Cameron's choice of date for the Euro poll, but I wonder if - privately - it isn't Ruth Davidson who has most cause to curse her party leader.