THERE is a 19th-century Punch cartoon of two Irishmen shipwrecked on a desert island.

As they crawl up the beach, one asks: “I wonder what the government is?”

The other replies: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

Like most such ephemera, it says a lot about English political attitudes of the time, but it came to mind this week in a different context, watching Douglas Ross during the First Minister’s Covid update.

There is no initiative and no issue which, if it emanates from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP government, he is not prepared to oppose with bitterness and bile.

And not just oppose. His modus operandi is to throw as much dirt and doubt as he can in order to discredit the very idea that the people in front of him – and by extension the people of Scotland – are capable of governing anything at all.

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Ross’s scorched-earth policy has its roots in a frustrated descent into negativity by a succession of Scottish opposition leaders – first of all Labour ones like Iain Gray and Johann Lamont, and then the ToriesRuth Davidson. Their intention was, of course, to undermine the electoral success of the SNP, but more than 14 years in government that party is still – as polls showed this week – almost 30 points ahead.

That might give wiser politicians pause for thought, always accepting of course that oppositions exist to oppose and that in doing so effectively they perform a valuable service to democracy.

The truth is, however, that for Ross opposition is not about addressing issues but about using any and every smear at any and every time in order to discredit the Scottish Government, individually and collectively, for reasons much more to do with our country’s future constitution than our country’s current concerns.

This approach does a grave disservice to governance. It drives out sensible debate on the merits of both policy and delivery. Governments need to be called to account and no government is perfect. There are of course occasions when culpability must lead to consequences for ministers and for parties and the SNP should never be immune from that.

Yet Ross’s scorched-earth approach totally fails to achieve such a result.

What the Tories are now locked into is a parliamentary version of their notorious overkill electioneering leaflets (one of them mentioned independence 28 times on a single page) which featured, even when she was no longer Scottish leader, Baroness Davidson arrogantly insisting that Scotland didn’t want and wouldn’t be allowed another referendum on independence – no matter what the voters chose.

Things have got even worse under Ross, who lacks both Davidson’s intelligence and superficial charm. He looks and sounds exactly like the leader of that self-same “nasty party” which Theresa May warned her Tory colleagues about almost 20 years ago, while sidekicks such as Russell Findlay and Stephen Kerr regularly echo his sneering, brutal and offensive approach, completely oblivious to the fact that these tactics are utterly counterproductive no matter how much they feed the perpetrators’ egos. Put bluntly, they turn most voters off.

They are also not risk-free in other ways – in fact, in these difficult times, they are positively dangerous.

In the brief period that Jackson Carlaw was Scottish Tory leader, which coincided with the start of the pandemic, he showed some realisation that working constructively, but not uncritically, with the government during a national emergency was the right thing to do.

Such an approach was clearly unacceptable to Davidson and more importantly to Gove, who sees himself as the Scottish Tory kingmaker, and Johnson.

So Carlaw was quickly dispatched (the Tory Party is ruthless when it comes to such things) and Ross was put in his place, with the remit to “get the nats” (a role that has been career-ending for more than one Scottish opposition leader, as Jim Murphy can testify) no matter the demands of the pandemic.

That is why, by January this year, the Tories under Ross began to vote against essential Covid regulations.

Then, over the spring and through the summer, he repeatedly attacked the actions that had to be taken to keep as many people as possible safe.

Now, on the issue of vaccine passports, he aggressively lashes out at something which is the norm in other jurisdictions, with restrictions that often go further than in Scotland.

When even Angela Merkel admits that Germany is in the grip of what she calls a “dramatic” fourth wave of infection, when Austria is re-entering lockdown while making vaccination compulsory and when Belgium’s prime minister observes that “Europe’s map is going red”, it is foolish to do anything other than look, listen, learn and act as promptly as possible.

Right across Europe and further afield, the vaccine passport or pass is being used as one of the ways in which the maximum amount of normality and economic activity can be preserved. Getting the booster programme rolled out as quickly as possible is also of great importance, as is widespread testing.

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A responsible opposition would be trying to give confidence to a population in need of support after the long, painful pandemic haul by, for example, drawing attention to the success of Scotland’s booster delivery. Not a word about that from Ross, though.

It would also rightly be seeking action on poor practice such as we have seen in parts of Argyll recently, a consequence of the health board taking the booster programme out of the hands of rural GPs. To his credit, the Tory MSP Donald Cameron did just that.

However, in his hysterical determination to deny the people of Scotland a democratic route to the future, Douglas Ross has gone not just in the wrong direction, but in a very damaging direction.

Yet he is also demonstrating not how good an alternative he and his party might be, but instead why he and those around him are unfit not just to lead the country, but even to serve it.