A CAPACITY for dazzling hypocrisy is a technical virtue of the modern politician. Politics – necessarily – seems like a forgetful business. With the rising and the setting of the sun, the news churns, and churns again. Today’s cause célèbre – with its irate political interviews, the furious parliamentary interventions, the PR horror show, the relentless retweets, the inevitable Katie Hopkins article and the resulting grovelling apology – is so much dust in a handful of days.

In a trice, it is swept up in the political speed cycle and washed out of the electorate’s minds. Today’s Two Minutes Hate will be reliably reprogrammed in some form or other tomorrow, at least until the heat death of the universe burns us to a crisp, or the zombie apocalypse is unleashed, or Bob Mueller gets around to indicting the Satsuma in Chief for obstruction of justice, and like a saffron Samson in his temple, Mr Trump decides to have a proper shot with the big red button, ending us all in a shower of atoms.

This kind of shifting landscape is fashioned for the benefit of political chameleons. Humble, unimaginative creatures of one colour are just going to be picked off. Nobody likes the guy who says: “I remember that different thing you said about this three years ago, actually.”

For the self-interested pol with a nose for their own survival, chopping and changing your arguments is just good political tradecraft. With Brexit the dangers of this approach to politics are becoming ever clearer.

For many politicians – and many political columnists – arguments are just instruments. They are convenient tools to get you through the grind of the political day. If I can crack my opponent over the noggin with an argument today, it is a good argument. If I get brained by the same point tomorrow, the argument suddenly has no substance, and must have been motivated by malice, misunderstanding, or downright villainy. If you’re really a past master, and find yourself caught in the contradictions of your own positions, the grizzled old hand can always sniff: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” But the cunning politician with a nose for this kind of patter has graduated to the upper ranks of dazzling hypocrisy. This is the crème de la crème; this is the higher bullshit.

None of which is to suggest that our politicians cannot – or should not – allow new data to reshape their perspectives, but a sober rational reconstruction of their positions is a million miles away from the kind of political thinking our cynical, game-playing politics encourages.

These voices are not limited to one political party. A scattering of examples should make the point. In opposition, the SNP excoriated the LibDem-Labour executive for tendering CalMac’s ferry services, and LibDem-Labour ministers rhubarbed earnestly about the importance of abiding by EU regulations. Finding themselves in office, the SNP rapidly reverse ferreted. Derek Mackay and his colleagues suddenly felt the pinch of EU competition law more tightly – and it was Labour MSPs grousing about Tartan Tories and privatisation. With the assistance of a quick political pirouette, the actors had switched sides, and continued to toss old arguments at each other across the chamber, hoping nobody seriously notices that both sides are arguing in bad faith that what once was black was now white, and vice versa.

For anyone with an eye for consistency, for anyone for whom arguments in good faith ought to be cherished, the modern political domain can look like a desperately incoherent, manipulative horror show, a shifting and cynical surface with no consistency, or depth. The great Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls this “emotivism”. Meaningful debate and argument is traded in for a boo and a hurrah politics – where all that matters is who shouts loudest, last and with enough Labour transfers to secure their place in Holyrood via the regional list.

In his day, David Cameron was dubbed the “essay crisis” Prime Minister. A quick brain for the rapid assembly job, Mr Cameron had the knack of superficially mastering his brief, and reliably producing a confident turn when it came to presenting his conclusions. But David Cameron wasn’t just the “essay crisis” Prime Minister – he emblematised Britain’s “essay crisis” political class, who are still launching idiotic political gambits, pumping out vacuous columns, ignoring awkward facts, and directing policy at the heart of Whitehall.

Don’t take my word for it. Just consult your own recent experience. The Foreign Secretary may resemble an angora rabbit, liberally doused in ball lighting and shoved on to the international stage, but if we are prepared to confront the implications of his success in UK politics, then Boris Johnson is a galumphing, waddling study in the giddy heights of authority you can achieve if only you can maintain sufficient political altitude when flying by the seat of your pants.

Superficial quickness is a vital skill of the journalist, the columnist and the trial lawyer – all professions overrepresented at the top end of UK politics – and it is the domination of our politics by swaggering, superficially quick, presentationally plausible people which is transforming Brexit into a slow-motion zeppelin crash.

BUT whatever their political stripe, we shouldn’t let them away with it. Consistency – and if you change your mind, explaining why your analysis has changed – should be the first duty of serious-minded politicians.

So let me take you back to 2015. Manifestos are circulating. A Scottish election is at hand – and police reform is high up the political agenda. One manifesto thundered: “Our promises to Scotland: Deliver better services and cost efficiencies through the creation of a single police force and a single fire service for Scotland.” In your innocence, you might assume these two snippets were culled from the SNP’s campaign literature. Police Scotland was established by the Scottish Government in 2013, collapsing the force’s specialist services and eight regional forces into a single national force. But this was Scottish Labour’s manifesto – and Scottish Labour’s commitment to a single policy force they now represent as an unthinkable folly. Political dementia again, but they are not alone.

Ruth Davidson’s most recent manifesto argued “the creation of Police Scotland is one of the poorest examples of the centralising nature of the SNP Government”, yet the Scottish Tory leader was first elected on a platform that police reform was an urgent necessity in the time of austerity. “In order to ensure we can achieve this at a time when the public sector has to make savings,” her election materials said, “we will merge Scotland’s eight police forces into one”.

But come the crisis, comes the political opportunity. Having spent years on nudge-nudge, wink-wink innuendo that the creation of Police Scotland presaged some kind of sinister Caledonian police state, this week, with suspensions of senior officers for alleged wrongdoing, the Scottish Tory justice spokesman, Liam Kerr MSP, scented the obvious political opportunity.

“Michael Matheson must,” he said, “step out of the shadows and get a grip on this because it keeps happening on his watch”.

The Justice Secretary, Mr Kerr maintained, “is responsible for this. The Justice Secretary has to be coming out and saying ‘there is a problem. We politically smashed together the single force and we are going to take responsibility for making it work’, and frankly that is just not what’s happening.”

So which is it? Is the problem too much centralisation, or too few dictats emerging from the Justice Secretary? Logic dies when you run these two arguments side-by side. Yet nobody seems to notice, to ask the awkward questions, to hold politicians to their record. The latest spat which will bat few eyelids – but it casts yet another grisly sidelight on the calibre of our forgetful, cynical, essay deadline politics.