A PALL hangs over the local Scottish elections this weekend – and that pall has come in the shape of the Orange Order. That an organisation with its history, its associations, its image, its attitudes has quietly sneaked its members into elected positions under cover of Tory and Labour votes is an indication of a darkening of Scottish politics.

In the past, there has been much foolish talk that the SNP was responsible for an "Ulsterisation of Scottish politics" simply for asking the public to back the idea of independence. Nothing could be more different from the political culture in Northern Ireland than the Yes movement. Politics in Ulster – even now in the era of peace – is stained with bigotry and the memory of blood. The Yes movement was a carnival of optimism, wishing for a bright and equal future for people of all races and religions in Scotland.

Now, though, we see that if there is any importation of Ulster-style politics to Scotland, it comes not from the pro-independence side of the argument but from the unionist side. Unionism has been sullied this weekend by the entryism of hardline loyalism into its elected ranks. Sadly, this is a facet of a growing and dangerous right-wing populism around the world that we see wooing traditional voters from Washington to Manilla and from Budapest to Brexit.

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For sure, this is not be the world we want, but the awful truth is that it is now the world in which we live – and so decent people who believe in equality and fairness must look at the world with ruthless pragmatism as this is not the time to don rose-coloured spectacles or make empty wishes for a better tomorrow. If you want a better tomorrow then you have to work and fight for it every day from now on.

As such, we must recognise that the future of Scotland will now come down to a straight fight between the SNP and the Tories. Between a form of civic Scottish nationalism, and what increasingly feels to be an old-style British nationalism which many of us thought had been left behind with the days of empire. Between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction – and in human terms, between two women: Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson.

Let us be clear about the election results: it was neither another tsunami for the SNP, nor a cowing of the SNP by the Tories. The truth is mundane: the SNP is still very much in the driving seat. It effectively flatlined yet still managed to finish comfortably as the biggest party. But the Scottish Tories did make some astonishing gains. These gains were clearly made at the expense of Labour who were hammered at the polls.

What we can divine is this: the political battleground for this nation is now the constitution, whether we like that or not. This was not an election about local issues, but about the union versus independence. It is fight with no centre ground. And it is a fight to the end. An existential battle cannot end in a draw. This nation is now either on its way to independence or the idea of independence will be snuffed out.

With an increasingly powerful as well as aggressive and undiplomatic Tory administration in London straining at the leash to remodel these islands as the Brexiteers see fit, this paper – with its history of supporting progressive political positions as well as Scottish independence in order to further those progressive beliefs – knows which way it wishes the wind to blow now.

The people of Scotland cannot risk being trapped in the post-Brexit Britain Theresa May plans. That way ruin truly lies. The local elections are the canary in the coalmine. The Tories are insurgent in Scotland and dominant in England. For Scotland, the General Election can be a hand-brake to stop the Tory ascendency. Those wooed by the Tories – voters who once supported a socialist Labour Party – must be persuaded that it is not a painted flag that matters or a piece of paper signed in 1707. They must be reminded that they voted for years – for decades – against the Tories because they knew that Tory policies were antithetical to them, and their children and their colleagues and neighbours. They must be convinced of a simple truth, one which they already know in their hearts: that Tory administrations benefit the rich, not the poor.

But many now newly minted Tory voters will not be dissuaded or persuaded, and so in this game of winner-takes-all that we now find ourselves in, the mathematics of elections must be clinical and decisive. If the Tories have successfully hoovered up votes from erstwhile Labour supporters who find the Union Jack more important than the welfare state, then the SNP must finish the job and woo those voters who see the world the other way around.

At the General Election we cannot fool ourselves that a vote for any party other than the SNP or the Tory party matters in Scotland – any other vote is a wasted vote; in a two-way fight there is no-one else to bet on. Voters need to cast their ballot in a way that counts, and in the polarised black-and-white nation in which we now live, that leaves just two choices.