SINCE Watergate, the grand-daddy of all political scandals, it has been commonplace to observe that the serious damage is often caused, not by the initial offence or row, but by subsequent attempts to minimise the damage.

To say that the scandal that attends the Salmond Inquiry is, in terms of its potential political fallout, just such an example is not to dismiss the importance of the original charges, but to point out that, after Mr Salmond’s victory over the Scottish Government in 2018, and almost a year after the courts then acquitted him in a criminal trial, the public has still to obtain answers to serious questions about the government’s handling of the matter.

The most recent ruling, by Lady Dorrian, may lead to the resubmission of Mr Salmond’s evidence to the committee next week, and increase the chances of the former first minister appearing before it, though we await the full details of the judgment. But despite the protestations of both parties that there would be full co-operation in bringing forward the details of how the initial investigation unfolded, there have been constant failures to clarify the most basic points of fact.

There has been testimony that many people – whatever the truth of the matter – have found it difficult to view as anything other than evasive, inadequate or hard to credit. If there are sound reasons for any of this, we’re unable to assess their validity, since the details have not been forthcoming. It is disingenuous to maintain that so much material must be redacted to maintain the anonymity of complainants, as Lady Dorrian’s ruling concedes.

Quite aside from the rights and wrongs of crucial questions about the Scottish Government’s handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond, and whether Nicola Sturgeon has breached the ministerial code, this whole saga has exposed problems that appear to be structural.

Though they may be most damaging to the SNP, and seized upon by the political opponents, the most important are not to do with internal party power struggles between allies of the current and former First Ministers.

With hindsight, it seems, at the very least, unwise of Ms Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, to have continued as the party’s chief executive while she served as party leader and First Minister. It is conceivable that there will be revelations that will embarrass the party further or lead to resignations. There is growing disquiet, even among supporters, about the worryingly authoritarian intolerance of dissent in their ranks, and aversion to scrutiny. But that is merely their look-out.

The relationship between the government and members of the civil service is an even more concerning issue; neutrality and transparency here are critical. We expect politicians to manoeuvre and engage in turf wars; we require public servants to operate impartially.

There must also now be doubts about the dual role of the Lord Advocate, simultaneously senior legal advisor to the government and head of the prosecution service, when he has refused to produce the legal advice that led to £500,000 of taxpayers’ money being wasted on the judicial review case that, by all accounts, was known to be hopeless.

The apparent inability of the Holyrood committee to compel ministers, civil servants and others to produce testimony is also a significant failing. It is not now clear that the parliament actually has the ability to do what, in any functioning democracy, should be its most basic task: holding the executive and the government to account. That is not a temporary embarrassment for the SNP or Ms Sturgeon. It is an indictment of systematic failings.

The SNP’s current electoral dominance is not a licence to act with impunity, but the problems this case exposes about transparency and public accountability are not confined to them alone. There are failings here that would potentially allow any party in government to operate without real checks; moves to rectify that are obviously in the public interest, no matter where your political allegiance lies. A shambles like this should never be permitted again.