A SPECTRE is haunting Scotland – the spectre of Salmond.

In the past week the First Minister has been compared to the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe. He has been cast as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character whose true “bullying” tendencies have come to the fore since the May election. He has governed, some say, with a “sinister centralism”.

To the London press the First Minister is a devious trickster, playing politics with the constitution. Meanwhile, City analyst Citigroup says his determination to plunge Scotland into the “uncertainty” of an independence referendum will destroy the Scottish renewables industry and deter investment.

SNP ambitions to transform Scotland into a leading provider of renewable energy and to export power after independence to England and even beyond became the focus of determined attacks throughout last week.

No sooner had Citigroup warned investors that independence would threaten their investments in renewable energy in Scotland than the Institute of Mechanical Engineers tore into Alex Salmond’s renewable targets, saying meeting them would cost billions and leave consumers facing a rise in energy prices.

Nicola Sturgeon, standing in for Salmond at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood, countered that Citigroup was wrong, that renewables were on target and that, anyway, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, there was still £376 billion in North Sea Oil, waiting to be exploited.

Those attacks followed days of criticisms of Salmond. The outgoing Labour leader, Iain Gray, used his farewell speech last Saturday to condemn the “ugly side of nationalism” under Salmond’s leadership, which he claims is spreading “vile poison” across public life.

The image he conjured up was of Salmond as the Dark Lord, presiding over his “cybernat” demons to pollute the internet with what Gray called “smears and lies” against anyone who disagrees with him.

Salmond has been here before, of course, and he’s well used to Unionists attempting to link him to the “dark side of nationalism”, as Labour’s former shadow scottish secretary, George (now Lord) Robertson used to put it. In the 1990s, Labour portrayed Salmond as a cross between Umberto Bossi of the Italian Lombard League and the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Salmond was famously dubbed the “toast of Belgrade” for his opposition to allied bombing during the Kosovo conflict. More recently, before the 2007 Scottish election, the SNP leader was excoriated in the Scottish tabloid press as “the most dangerous man in Scotland”. During the recent Supreme Court row, the advocate general, Lord Wallace, accused Salmond of challenging the rule of law itself by his “aggressive interventions” against English judges.

The First Minister naturally dismisses these charges and points out that he remains hugely popular where it counts – among Scottish voters. They don’t seem to think Salmond has horns on his head. The FM’s personal popularity has been a huge electoral asset to the SNP, so it’s not surprising Unionists have been doing their best to tarnish it. What is surprising is how inept they are at doing so. Lord Cormack’s comparison last week with Robert Mugabe was as ludicrous as it was offensive – no-one, not even Lord Cormack, seriously believes that the FM intends to lock up opposition politicians and foment violence on the streets.

In the same debate, the former Tory Scottish Secretary, Lord Forsyth, claimed, under parliamentary privilege, that the SNP leader had told the Chancellor, George Osborne, privately that if Westminster tried to stage its own referendum on independence, Salmond would “use the police” to frustrate it. The SNP say they’ve no idea what Lord Forsyth was talking about.

What the Unionists never quite seem to grasp is that many Scottish voters – even some Unionists – regard such remarks about Scotland’s elected leader as a slight against them. Treating the First Minister of Scotland as a devious anti-colonial demagogue or a proto-dictator is offensive toward the Scottish people.

Similarly, the charge that Scotland is too wee or too poor to govern itself is counter-productive and flies in the face of constitutional reality in Europe. Yet, hardly a week goes by without some politician claiming that Scotland would be in the red to the tune of £4 billion – the figure quoted by Annabel Goldie in her swan song as Tory leader.

There has also, in recent weeks, been a succession of “leaks” from “Government sources” questioning Salmond’s policy on Europe. One claimed it would take three years and “billions” in lost revenue, before an independent Scotland would be allowed to rejoin the EU. Another said if Scotland did remain in Europe, there would have to be border posts to control emigration to England.

It was all rather similar to the debates before the creation of the Scottish Parliament, when Edinburgh financiers warned of a flight of investment because of the “uncertainty” of devolution.I doubt there is a conscious conspiracy to demonise Alex Salmond. Scotland’s Unionist parties are in no shape to mount anything so coherent just now. Rather, there are signs Westminster politicians, and the London media, are becoming more aware of what’s happening in Scotland and are starting to ask more searching questions, not just about independence, but also of “devolution max” – which many believe is a ruse by Salmond to “rig” the referendum so he can’t lose.

It has to be said that many questions are legitimate: there are, indeed, gaps in the SNP’s independence prospectus. If Scotland keeps the pound after separation, is that really independence? Do the SNP still support the euro, and how would it be introduced? Would England set up border controls if Scotland had a more liberal policy on immigration?

There has also been a more considered strand of criticism from liberal commentators such as the journalist Joyce McMillan, who sat on the devolution constitutional steering committee in the 1990s. Last week, she warned Scotland was becoming, by default, a “one-party state”. “It’s time,” she said, “for the people of Scotland to wake up to the dangers of this largely unforeseen situation; and perhaps to start developing some new and imaginative mechanisms for challenging the SNP’s dominance, forcing it to clarify its ideas, and holding it to account.”

The SNP’s decision after the Scottish elections to “hog” the chairmanships of parliamentary committees is regarded as a sign of this centralism – though it has to be said that packing committees is what all governments do.

Since the May election, Salmond has certainly lost no time in sweeping aside opposition to his legislative programme. Last week, he pressed ahead with minimum pricing of alcohol, a measure that had been defeated by the opposition parties before the 2011 election.

The SNP have also introduced a supermarket levy and Salmond seems determined to drive through the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Matches Bill in the teeth of opposition. Whatever happened, say opposition parties, to Salmond’s commitment to the “new politics of co-operation and compromise” that he proclaimed after the 2007 election?

All politicians develop autocratic tendencies – remember Tony Blair. In Scotland, moreover, there is no second chamber, no House of Lords, to balance the power of the Government in the lower house. Also, Scotland has traditionally been run by crony networks based on Labour Party membership – remember the Sinclair Report in 2001, which identified the networks of Labour patronage that radiated from the Fife offices of the former first minister, Henry McLeish. There is a legitimate concern the SNP might seek to replace the Labour “crony state” with a Nationalist one.

However, it would take more than a few intemperate remarks about English judges to justify a claim that the SNP is running an autocratic administration, still less an elective dictatorship. It’s not been in office long enough to make such an impact anyway. As more key offices become available for patronage, we will be able to see which way the SNP intends to blow. For example, nominations close shortly for the post of Information Commissioner,to replace Kevin Dunion, a vigorous defender of freedom of information who clashed with Alex Salmond over the FM’s refusal to publish civil servants’ internal advice over the merits of local income tax. If the SNP-dominated committee appoints some Nationalist toady, we may be justified in concluding there are incipient centralist tendencies.

But so far it is hard to justify the charge that the SNP has been creating anything like the one-party state Labour presided over in the past. The truth is Salmond is popular because he appears to put Scotland first. Many non-Nationalists support the SNP because Nationalist ministers appear to be doing a good job. By demonising Alex Salmond, the Unionist parties risk undermining their own case. Like the SNP, they need to start talking Scotland up, instead of talking Alex down.