FOR more than 20 years, since the disputes about devolution in the 1990s, the Scottish National Party has been a byword for party unity. Now, for the first time, that unity is under challenge, as two rival camps emerge following Alex Salmond’s Court of Session victory over the Scottish Government in the sexual harassment case. And while it is too early to say that the party is finally split, still less that there is a civil war, this is a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland’s most successful political party.

The Salmond affair has collided with a dispute in the party about the future of independence. Mr Salmond has made no secret of his enthusiasm for an early referendum, and made clear last spring that he intended to return to active politics to help lead it. Not everyone in the Scottish Government was entirely relaxed about this prospect.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been intensely cautious about any future referendum, not least because of her failed attempt to launch one in 2017. But many activists are instinctively with Mr Salmond, and believe a historic opportunity could be lost. The issue has been rumbling in the undergrowth since October when Ms Sturgeon once again delayed her long-promised timetable for indyref2. She said she’d deliver it when the fog of Brexit had cleared – but many in the party, even her strongest supporters, are giving up hope that there will be a referendum before the current mandate expires in 2021.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon facing second inquiry over Alex Salmond as feud worsens 

Last week, the First Minister yet again promised a statement on the referendum timetable, but that was overtaken by the Scottish Government’s defeat in court, when it admitted it had acted unlawfully and unfairly over the Salmond inquiry. Now, the prospects of any announcement this year must be close to zero.

Ms Sturgeon has referred herself to parliament’s standards panel, which could take three months to report. Parliament also agreed a special committee to investigate her series of private meetings with Mr Salmond. The panel will probably exonerate her from any serious violation of the ministerial code. There’s nothing in the rules that says the First Minister can’t speak to her predecessor, though it is likely to say there should have been a written record of any meeting in which her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, was present.

But this will not be the end of the matter. There is also a criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner into the leaks of the Salmond “sex pest” allegations to the Daily Record, which could be highly damaging. The journalists will of course protect their sources. Ms Sturgeon, on behalf of the Scottish Government, will deny all knowledge of a leak. But there will be a wealth of speculation and a running commentary from both sides.

Already, we’ve had Ms Sturgeon’s spokespeople accusing “Team Salmond” of “smearing” her. This is the first time I can recall such a serious accusation being made between such senior SNP figures in public. Mr Salmond claims that Ms Lloyd made contact with him in March, before he was informed of the allegations against him, and advised him not to return to active politics. Ms Sturgeon denies that her chief of staff had prior knowledge of the specific complaints, though she concedes that Mr Salmond’s future had been discussed “in the context of #metoo” – which rather suggests that he was being warned off.

Read More: Sturgeon accuses Team Salmond

This takes us into another ongoing aspect of this case: the presumption of innocence. The First Minister’s many supporters on social media have been condemning Mr Salmond for making life more difficult for the “courageous women”, as the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard described the civil service employees who made the complaints. This public speculation about Mr Salmond’s presumed guilt actually does no service to those women. As the former President of the Scottish Law Society, Ian Smart – a long-term critic of Mr Salmond – pointed out this week, such prejudicial commentary could undermine prospects for a successful prosecution. “If (and it is a big if) this matter should ever proceed criminally”, he wrote, “these are remarks upon which any competent defence team will undoubtedly seize”.

The police have been examining Mr Salmond’s conduct over recent years and questioning employees and colleagues of the former First Minister to establish whether there is any evidence of similar sexual harassment. This is standard practice in such cases. But it is difficult for details of an investigation into such a high-profile figure as Mr Salmond not to leak into the public domain.

No one knows whether Mr Salmond will be found to be innocent, I certainly have no wish to speculate on this. But many of his supporters believe that the most likely outcome is that the police will find insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution. This could be the worst of both worlds for the SNP, because some would declare Mr Salmond guilty by default, others would condemn the Scottish Government for investigating him in the first place, and for making the allegations public.

Whatever happens, Mr Salmond has made clear he will claim damages from the Scottish Government, which will rack up the already-substantial legal bill being paid by the taxpayer. That will renew the attack on Ms Sturgeon’s handling of the affair. Opposition parties may eventually support the call from the former SNP minister, Alex Neill, this week for a full judge-led inquiry into the procedures and practices of the Scottish Government that led to last week’s Court of Session fiasco.

So, this story could run and run – but will it destroy the SNP Government? I doubt it. In the end, Ms Sturgeon is not directly implicated in the mishandling of the Salmond inquisition – that was her civil servants. Moreover, Brexit and the aftermath to last night’s vote will dominate politics for the next year. Scottish voters are quite capable of looking beyond questions about Mr Salmond’s personal conduct to the bigger issues.

However, a bit of division right now might be no bad thing. The SNP is far too averse to controversy, and it is about time it had a proper debate about its future and its leadership structures. Making a fetish of unity, and ignoring political reality, is almost as dangerous as a split.