SINCE Nicola Sturgeon raised it in the leaders’ debates, the observation that Scotland’s Unionist parties have given up on winning today’s election and are openly aspiring to second place has been remarked upon by several political commentators. In some respects, the admission is to be welcomed. If nothing else, it is honest which, arguably, is more than can be said of their positions on some other matters.

Does it cheapen our democracy? Perhaps, but many would argue that Scotland’s challenges on the democracy front run far deeper than the lack of political competition at Holyrood. For as long the Unionist opposition rejects our right, under any circumstances, to decide our constitutional future, it might be no bad thing that they have no hope of winning power.

The Unionist parties’ lack of focus on winning in May is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. The greater problem may instead be why they are not focused on winning. For the Tories at least, the reason appears to be that they do not need to win. Look at any Tory leaflet this year, listen to any candidate interview and what is the message? Vote for us to stop the SNP. Vote for us to stop another “divisive” referendum. Winning suggests a need to improve, build, create. But what if your main priorities are to block, scupper and stagnate?

The Unionist parties, instead of developing a positive vision for Scotland and winning the right to pursue it, appear instead to have set their sights on doing just well enough to ruin the vision of others. When the pinnacle of your ambition is to break someone else’s, you do not need to compete. This is torpedo politics. The politics of sinking hope, blocking change and replacing it with… not very much, it seems.

Unionist politicians never admit to their lack of offerings, of course. Some disguise it with pro-UK appeals to the electorate’s sense of solidarity or nostalgia. Some deflect by accusing the SNP of recklessness in its pursuit of “separation” or by peddling scare stories of division. Some claim to offer federalism but must surely know they don’t.

It is enough to make one wonder why some people go into politics at all. A cynic might say people enter politics for career advancement and do whatever they think is necessary to climb ladders and keep paychecks coming in. Some probably do, but it would be nice to think that generally, people go into politics because they want to improve the societies they live in. Most Unionist politicians appear, on a personal level, to be decent enough people, who would never go out of their way to complicate or diminish the lives of their neighbours. If one holds that assumption however, as one surely must, it raises real questions over how to explain particular behaviours and positions.

Take, for example, the refusal to accept that a pro-independence majority in May would be a mandate for a referendum -- a position which, as several interviews with numerous individuals have demonstrated, is democratically indefensible. What do such individuals do in such interviews? They dodge, they deflect, they squirm and, ultimately, they fail to justify their position because their position is unjustifiable. How do they feel when the mic is turned off?

Likewise, look at offers of federalism. Do those who espouse federalism honestly think they can make it happen? Are they really that dim? Or do they just think the voters are? Do they think of such offerings as artistic licence? An elaboration on genuine good intentions? Or are they just lying? And if it is the latter, why? Maybe, in their minds, the intended ends justify the means. But if the only way to derail the growth in support for independence is to lie about the viability of alternatives, should that not be a cue to change tack on the matter?

The list goes on: how do you spend years insisting that there is a positive case for the Union, without ever actually saying what that case is? How do you tell people with a straight face that you are pro-EU, while rejecting Scotland’s only viable route back into the bloc? How do you accuse the Scottish government of losing focus on dealing with the pandemic, while at the same time ploughing your energy into undermining its efforts to do so?

Unionist politicians are tying themselves in knots, not necessarily because they are incompetent – however much it may come across that way sometimes – but because they are trying to defend indefensible positions and promote plans that crumble under the slightest scrutiny.

In some respects, the fact that they still have the support they do is remarkable. Is that down to a compliant media? Is it down to old voter habits dying hard? Is it down to members of the public burying their heads in the sand or looking for excuses rather than reasons to vote a particular way?

Individual voters will vote as they do for all manner of reasons, but thankfully for Scotland the electorate as a whole is waking up. Few would argue the SNP’s

14 years in power have been perfect, but they have set us on a trajectory of optimism and hope with which the opposition increasingly just cannot compete.

The Unionist parties are aiming low in this election, not just for themselves but for the country as a whole. They have long since accepted their failure to lead Scotland and are now focused instead on leading Scotland to failure.

Scotland’s future in the UK is bleak. The independence movement knows it, the electorate knows it and, presumably, the Unionist leadership must know it. Why they insist on pretending otherwise is anyone’s guess, but we do not have to entertain their pretence. However you vote today, vote for a future worth having.