THIS opinion will probably not catch on with the Sunday National readership, but I must admit to some admiration for Andrew Neil. He is the most intelligent, well prepared, forensic and formidable of all political interviewers. Anyone who was not fearful of his questions would be foolish.

Moreover, whilst I disagree with his right-wing politics, he had the guts and the confidence to return to Scotland and try to change the country when he became editor in chief of the Barclay brothers’ newspaper stable in 1996.

Many of his far less able imitators (he has tended to gather those) simply took the high road to England from where they continue to snipe and sneer, but he was prepared to grapple close up with what he (misguidedly in my view) still sees as the Scottish problem – a fondness for left-of centre-politics leading to an over-dominant public sector, a lack of private investment and innovation, and an increasing support for civic nationalism.

All this praise leads up to a criticism, of course. I think – in fact I know, having been a minister for most of the last 13 years – that his recent Twitter assertion that the Scottish media have “treated Ms Sturgeon and her government with kid gloves’’ is demonstrable, indeed laughable, nonsense.

The inference in the remark is also dangerous. For if her good poll ratings were solely as a result of media failure (and if, as he claimed, Boris Johnson’s bad ratings were entirely to do with media success) then what he is saying is that the job of the press is not scrutiny but opposition, and that it is – and should be – the press that makes and breaks governments, not policies or performance or the people.

Given the lack of media diversity and plurality that is essentially insisting that a small wealthy coterie, overwhelmingly male and right of centre, should run our democracy.

This failure to distinguish between scrutiny and opposition isn’t of course found solely in the higher echelons of the media. It was on display in Scottish politics last week too.

Former Labour leader Johann Lamont, consumed as she is by the bitterness of eternal exile from all the things that she thought she was entitled to as a Labour grandee, sits in the Holyrood chamber muttering for much of the time.

It is a bizarre, low-level ground bass of discontent and waspish criticism, always of the SNP, but when she actually speaks she works herself into a frenzy of self-righteousness which leads to ludicrous assertions – such as her demand on Wednesday that government advisers who had been answering questions about the so-called circuit breaker should be sought out and punished.

SHE is of course entitled to oppose, no matter how oddly. But she and at least some of her Labour comrades have now got it into their collective heads that the task of scrutiny in these extraordinary times of pandemic is not about examining, commenting on, improving (and of course sometimes rejecting) the urgent public health measures that are required but actually about oppositionalist, old-style, pre-pandemic, business-as-usual politics – in which “SNP bad” is the mantra and everything is seen as an opportunity to attack, undermine and defeat those they hate.

That is also, unfortunately, the position of the Tory leader in Scotland, who on Thursday managed to briefly break off from his pre-match preparation for a Wembley touchline appearance that night to snippily inform me that he and his party would not sit down and talk to the Scottish Government about how we could all improve parliamentary scrutiny of the pandemic regulations, despite the desire of at least one of his own senior party members and several of his backbenchers for such dialogue and the public commitment of myself and the First Minister to it.

Andrew Neil (above) is far brighter than Ross or Lamont. He and I will never agree on politics but I am sure we would be of one mind that the correct understanding and use of words and the concepts they encapsulate are very important.

Rigorous scrutiny of those who govern, though sometimes uncomfortable, is essential in any democracy and is a pre-condition for a healthy one. The facts that emerge from such scrutiny can make or break all of us.

But oppositonalism, and particularly the type that uses brute force to try to destroy those we simply dislike or who stand in the way of our ambition, is quite another matter, particularly in these darkest of times.