With it now 93 days to Christmas, it is getting tantalisingly close to the day when we find out who has been a good girl or boy and suitably rewarded therein. I personally can’t wait for that bleary-eyed morning with a rotund, jovial man bearing his gifts of knowledge. Yes, that’s right, the Holyrood election 2011 is drawing ever nearer.

Above all else, the public deserves one thing from our representatives at election time and that is dividing lines. With the centre left a particularly crowded field it is difficult to see where, or even if, these dividing lines will open up between now and May. Indeed, I fear that the inertia that has crept in at Holyrood of late will result in personality rather than policies being the only real criterion for a disaffected public. That thought crystallised yesterday morning when I read this excerpt from The Herald’s coverage of the minimum pricing issue:

LibDem health spokesman Ross Finnie warned that there was a risk of an “entirely polarised debate” and that everything the SNP Government said on alcohol was “rubbish”.

There is no doubting that alcohol is a fight that Scotland is currently losing on many fronts; health-related, crime-related, education-related and even reputationally. It doesn’t take long for a Scotsman abroad to bear the brunt of a crass comment about his/her homeland and booze, with or without bumping into Prince Philip.

However, as Ross Finnie has pointed out, the two main parties are not close to reaching any agreement in this “polarised” debate and while the Lib Dem spokesman tries to portray himself as the reasonable alternative, he undermines that objective by bizarrely calling the Government’s proposals “rubbish” when they are, at the very least, reasonable and valid.

The Conservatives have their own valid argument, a libertarian approach that seems to revolve around some mythical ‘squaddie’ who has longed to come home from Afghanistan and tuck into some cut-price cider. The Greens, most impressively but inconspicuously of all, have looked at the SNP’s proposals, thought they looked fair enough and have been onboard ever since. Once again the silent heroes of the piece, if only there were more of them alongside Patrick and Robin.

Most parties have circled around this policy area, and many others, that they all agree need addressed but they have contrived to allow their personalities to get in the way of an optimal policy where everybody wins.

Will this be the template for the election campaign?

With the amount of money that Scotland will be given to spend over the coming years set to drop sharply, one can’t envisage that any of the parties will be able to pull together an attractive manifesto, not while balancing their numbers that is. This may well drag all commitments to a horribly vague middle-ground and leave the voter little choice.

There should be clear policy dividing lines on local taxation (SNP/Lib Dem – Local Income Tax, Greens – Land Value Tax, Tories/Labour – Council tax/to be decided) and minimum pricing if it remains an issue but I cannot envisage these topics being the main talking points of the election campaign. Cuts and jobs/economy are the main issues and all parties want less of the former and more of the latter. Not many dividing lines there.

One would expect the SNP to hold an advantage over the other parties with the mighty Salmond consistently leading polls that focus on party leaders. One could also argue that the SNP has had a relatively successful four years policy-wise so perhaps, with Labour so far ahead in the polls, I should not limit the crucial factor of the 2011 election to these two considerations.

The main personality question will depend on whether the main Opposition party, Labour, continues to oppose all spending cuts by the SNP Government or seeks to offer an alternative budget. To this end, January 2011 will be a crucial period as voting begins on the budget for 2011/12.

Was Labour to continue playing the politics of decrying every job loss, every project scrappage and every decrease in expenditure then the result of 2011 will depend on whether the public responds favourably to such a strategy.

Scotland would be best served by a substantive policy debate, not a squabbling contest built on inflated egos and unshakeable truculence, but I guess we’ll just wait and see which of the two awaits us.