ALEX Salmond impressed me when I spent six hours in front of the TV as he gave his level-headed evidence to the MSPs grilling him about the charges of harassment he had faced. I was no less impressed when Nicola Sturgeon took her turn over eight hours in a more emotional performance that yet held fast to its narrative coherence.

Looking back on both of them, I regret that their once formidable alliance has had to end this way. The First Minister was right, at her Holyrood questions session the next day, to reject the Tories’ cynical yet inept attempt to dig up the whole wretched business yet again, in an effort to squeeze out of it the last possible drop of partisan advantage.

It didn’t work, I was glad to see. Even so, it was hard to glimpse, through the dark swirls of alleged betrayal and of breach of trust, any sign of reconciliation. Let’s hope the committee can come up with some verbal formulas acceptable enough to both sides when it reports before the dissolution of this Parliament. After the election, we can get on with the real business of winning Scotland’s independence.

I cherish this hope all the more because I will myself vote SNP once again – for the 20th time since 2005, counting all levels of government. Some pundits have been saying that, after so long in power, the ruling party must be about ready for a spell in opposition in order to deal with internal problems and to buck itself up. There is no doubt democracy suffers the longer a spell of one-party rule goes on. But at any given moment an equally valid consideration must be the state of the opposition parties.

And that is not good. Both Labour and the LibDems still struggle to pick themselves up from crushing electoral defeats in the recent past. The Tories have meanwhile got through their own zombie phase. But they do not yet seem to feel quite at home in a devolved system of government either. During the winter, Boris Johnston first called devolution a disaster in private, and then in public called it “not a total disaster”.

I think we can guess what his true opinion is, insofar as he has true opinions beyond blurting out whatever might make his questioner shut up. If his answers contradict each other, that’s too bad for the questioner because it will not bother Boris. There was recently a poll showing only 8% of Scottish voters still disapprove of devolution so much that they would support its abolition.

When Boris comes to Scotland he tries not to meet many Scots, but I would guess he could manage a brief exchange with those No-sayers. If he found he agreed with them it would still matter little because he does not believe intellectual reflection or physical action are the natural consequences of any verbal commitment. Heavens, some Scots even vote for two different parties at the same election, as our generous system allows.

But today I want to look not at the diehard Unionists, rather at the much bigger section of the electorate with minds open to a range of solutions for Scotland, and who may indeed have voted for a range of solutions in the past. These people can be hard to characterise. Yet we know they must exist, simply because there are constituencies that do switch their majorities from Tory to SNP and back again, perhaps with a halt at Labour or LibDems along the way.

While we can hope for another referendum in the next couple of years, there would be no purpose in holding one unless we are pretty sure the indy-marginal constituencies are going to line up for Yes. That is precisely why the First Minister, reluctant as she is to be pinned down, too, has let it be known that she would be looking for a Yes majority of 60:40% in the polls before she would lead a charge for a referendum.

THERE are pundits, including pundits on this paper, urging Nicola to throw caution to the winds and go for broke, relying on the vigour and enthusiasm of the wider Yes movement to carry the country through the ferment of its political opinions. Through the ferment of its economic opinions too, because an early voting day would necessarily take place before the country had fully surmounted its coronavirus crisis, or got its public spending under control, or decided on its currency … there’s just no end of problems.

The pundits I am talking about are on the whole people who spend their private and professional lives in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, or exceptionally in Dundee, which gave a favourable Yes vote in 2014 and would repeat it if we went to the polls again tomorrow. Little good it has done us this far.

The voters I am really wondering about, however, live outside the central belt and tend to concentrate in the far north and the deep south of the country. They do keep switching their votes, as the results of General Elections demonstrate. They are even quite capable of switching their votes from Tory to SNP (or back again), and not so much as a matter of existential choice, rather of passing fad.

Another thing marking out the periphery from the centre is that at the periphery, north or south, people scarcely use the word socialism, and have little idea what it means. I’m not sure the central belt pundits have much idea either, in that they seldom care to define it.

In the real world the available models stretch from Cuba to Venezuela (not far, in other words). In the rest of the real world, socialism collapsed about 1990 and hardly anybody takes it as a model for the future. I think Scots, nationalist Scots in particular, should see in this a huge hint to choose something else.

Most of the periphery has, after all, never even voted Labour, to the limited extent it has offered socialism (the last election was one such occasion, but look what happened then).

One possible implication is that the SNP should look for more conservative policies as the basis for its appeal in these regions. I don’t mean they should turn Tory, because independence would remain the basis of its electoral appeal. But there are enough conservative policies to make independence perfectly compatible with capitalism. I often write about them in this column, and the replies I get show me a medley of other voters can support them, too.

One sign of madness is when the afflicted keep saying the same things yet expect them to bring a different result. This country, outside its central belt, has never been wholeheartedly socialist anyway. What is more, after independence it is going to continue as a capitalist country, not only because there is no other feasible system but also because our eventual return to the EU will require us to subscribe to the principles set out in its treaties – which are capitalist. For the 21st century, there is really no alternative.