The parties of the Union have a battle to fight tooth and nail this year and next.

No quarter will be given. Historians are on stand-by. For now, those parties have to wade in the trenches of First Minister's questions. It's a grisly affair and sometimes tedious. Each week, the anti-Nationalist alliance attempts to solve the same tactical problem.

How do you prove the SNP isn't fit to govern when, weekly, England provides a glimpse of an alternative? How do you show Alex Salmond has failed when he can blame the Coalition for nicking his budget, or warning anyone voting the Westminster way?

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This is particularly tough – but don't grieve – on the Tories and the LibDems. Salmond tars and feathers them weekly with what their Coalition is doing in England. It's not much easier for Johann Lamont. Once she would have been on firm ground on the NHS. For generations, Labour owned the issue. Now a party toying with prescription charges is fighting to get in the game.

Lamont said calamities are unfolding. There are hidden waiting lists, ward closures, staff cuts, a billion pound repair bill and authorities being forced to borrow. It's quite a charge sheet. If nothing else, it suggests not all is for the best in the best of all SNP worlds. It is an attack, chiefly, on Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy and ex-health secretary.

But what does Salmond do? What he does best: he boasts. The First Minister says public satisfaction with the NHS in Scotland has increased. He invites you to wonder where else this could be true. Then he casts his party as the last defenders of a health service free at the point of need. He means prescription charges.

Lamont's actual point – that all in health is not well – is lost. We are returned always to Salmond's ground: look at the Westminster alternative.

Beyond the historic blethers and the trench warfare, that will be 2013's big argument. Is it possible for Scotland to be different and better? Perhaps a real debate is in order.