AS alleged scandals go, it counts as arcane.
Nothing seedy is at stake. No-one is talking about sex, or money, favours or preferment. If there is a cover-up, it might even involve the concealment of the fact – this is bizarre but true – that there was nothing to conceal to begin with. It certainly won't bring down a government.
The issue at stake, equally, is not one you will hear much about. It involves a hypothetical question: would an independent Scotland have to apply for membership of the European Union as a new-born nation, or would we be recognised as old partners requiring only a bit of paperwork?
It all counts, meanwhile, as a strange sort of obsession for the main opposition parties. The Tories are ambivalent, at best, towards the EU. Some want a patriotic referendum of their own to put all those foreigners in their place. Labour, in British terms, are wary of embracing European entanglements for fear of tabloid jingoism. Both parties will use any stick available to beat Alex Salmond, however.
At the heart of the uproar is a serious charge: that the First Minister of Scotland can't be trusted to tell the truth. In mundane reality, what the opposition actually mean is that Salmond, that one-man Nationalist band, has a habit of making stuff up as he goes along. Did he get proper advice from the law officers to support the claim that Scotland would be one of two successor states to a dismantled United Kingdom, with the same rights in the EU as the England Plus rump?
Did he merely seem to say, in a March interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil, that such advice existed, or was he simply referring to the status of certain Government documents? Why did his administration go to court to prevent the release of facts when last week his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, could announce that suddenly advice was being sought "formally"? Is he obliged by the ministerial code to neither confirm nor deny the existence of advice, if any, without the prior consent of law officers? Or is he – the opposition view – at it?
Perhaps we can look forward to the anti-independence campaign putting that lot into a leaflet. Perhaps we can expect them to get around to mentioning that Salmond just lost two MSPs who can't stomach membership of a first-strike nuclear alliance. Perhaps all concerned will remember that in 2014 we will be voting on a proposition, not a personality, and that the choice of a government comes later. But don't hold your breath.
The Unionist parties are chipping away at Salmond. Last week's exchanges were a preface to what will be, they hope, two years of demolition work. They begin from the belief that the personal style of the SNP's undisputed leader – charisma, ebullience, bottomless self-confidence – is less of an asset than slavish Nationalists imagine. His insouciance towards difficult questions will be the undoing, they contend, of the independence campaign.
But they would say that. Labour and Tory indignation over the existence of legal advice is thin paper over a deep crack in the Unionist facade. The wonder is that the SNP has not made more of it. In short, what do the other lot truly think?
Would an independent Scotland really have to apply afresh for EU membership? If so, where does that leave the Treaty of Union, that agreement between equals? It is a strange sort of partnership that reduces Scotland to an abstraction.
There is a problem, too, with the Unionist depiction of Salmond. You can call him a braggart who puts ambition before truth. You can return to the topic of an ego the size of Cairngorm. But this First Minister has two historic achievements. Neither reflects well on the parties who call him a bare-faced liar.
Under Salmond's leadership, the SNP achieved the overall Holyrood majority that was said to be impossible, the majority against which all the dice were loaded by the late Donald Dewar. In consequence, Salmond could claim the referendum on independence that Dewar's devolution was supposed to forestall. Nationalism was to be locked in a box, then killed "stone dead". The First Minister gets the credit for making a mockery of Unionist hubris.
He got his majority because Labour became disreputable while the Tories remained irrelevant. He got a referendum because Unionism ran out of alternatives and willpower. Salmond's opponents take comfort in opinion polls. Let's see who turns out to vote in 2014. Given the condition of the constituent parties, a Lib-Lab-Con alliance promoting British virtue will be fun to observe.
Play the man regardless, and forget the ball. It hardly counts as one of those "positive cases for Union" we are always promised, but it's not a bad idea. Salmond is a paradox, simultaneously his party's biggest asset and handicap. Take him out and you eradicate an argument at a stroke. Or so Unionists believe.
The four-to-three Nato vote at the SNP conference demonstrated that he is not invulnerable. In that shoddy affair another piece of Nationalism's soul became a burned offering to pragmatism as the convener defines it. But resistance was real, right, and – what's that other word? – honest. Salmond's own party is no longer robotically convinced that he reads the moral compass infallibly.
Independence might have little to do with "what Alex Salmond thinks", but why should Labour or the Tories worry? If Salmond is making it up as he goes along, or so it is thought, the case for self-determination can't amount to much.
For the independence campaign, a few things need to be settled. One involves Salmond's taste for improvisation. When was it decided Scotland would remain within the sterling area, little better than a glorified Isle of Man? Who said that Rupert Murdoch was our best pal? When will this SNP leadership stop invoking ancient policy on the parasites of monarchy?
The First Minister wants the cops to ask why filmmakers were arrested while annoying Donald Trump. The arrests are old news. A better story would involve Salmond's erstwhile friendship with a Manhattan property developer on the fringes of right-wing Republicanism. What, as a few Nationalists ask, was that about?
These things are grist to the creaking mill of those who defend the Union. They arise because of the way Salmond chooses to conduct himself. The fact of his conduct only arises, meanwhile, because of the credit he has earned. But two years remain for the enemies of independence to chip away at a single question.
Does it make democratic sense for the future of a country to depend on the human flaws of one person? Beyond question, he's a remarkable man. But we are, and must be, better than that.
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