NOT that far back in the day, it used to be the fundamentalists versus the gradualists. And it was Mr Alba who then argued that the road to independence must not be littered with frightened horses.

Thus, if you remember, the campaign in 2014 made soothing noises about keeping sterling, keeping the monarchy, keeping every damn familiar thing bar ditching the actual Union. Keeping the more traditionally minded lieges content, whilst the restless natives could be assured that 1707 and all that would shortly be a historical footnote.

Much blood has flowed under the bridge since that campaign, not least the parting of the seemingly cemented ways between Alex Salmond and his successor and ­mentee. When you look back on all that – the court case, the furore in the media, the various inquiries into who alleged what of whom, it’s nothing short of a political miracle that the SNP failed to implode, taking its ­administration down with it.

Meanwhile, the former gradualist-in-chief grew impatient with the failure to fight ­enthusiastically enough on the ­independence front. So he took his bat and his ba’ and set up a new party, joined by those who had also concluded that while Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t afraid to march her troop up to the top of the hill, she just kept bringing them back to ground zero when there was a whiff of Unionist grapeshot.

So whilst the cast has shifted around, for a while, the battle lines were drawn in much the same manner.

The folks who felt the Yes movement had kept missing buses like Brexit and Boris and would they please bloody get on with it, and those who insisted that anything ­without cast-iron legal ­underpinnings would ­torpedo the nation’s hopes of ­re-entering Europe or, indeed, any polite global company at all.

What we might call the gold standard group.

That was then. Now, with three ­candidates from the same party slugging it out to take over the reins, we have entered the age of rather different “friendly” fire. Yellow on yellow, as someone characterised it. The opposition parties have lapped it all up – busily collating sound bites for their own election campaigns.

And it’s fair to say that Kate Forbes, ­unwittingly or not, has given them some valuable ammo.

Yet what possible use would an ­“after you, Jeeves” style of campaign be to a country hungry to move on with ­confidence and still partly in shock at the First Minister’s surprise resignation?

This first real contest in two decades has stuck the three contenders in the most visible of shop windows, forced to sell their wares under the public and ­media gaze and playing for the highest possible personal stakes.

Those opposed to independence and all its works have gleefully said: ­“Lookee here, the Government is riven with ­divisions they’ve tried to keep from you.”

That’ll be the people whose own ­parties give ferrets in a sack a decent run for their money.

The Conservatives who go through ­leaders and political fashions with ­dizzying regularity. And have turned so far to the right they’ve met UKIP ­coming back in its newest livery. And Labour, with the scent of power in England in its nostrils, carefully fashioning an “all things to all people” party which makes Blairism seem positively radical.

Yet it’s true to say there are ­contemporary fault lines in today’s ­Scottish ­nationalism. The grads versus the ­fundies have morphed into the ­“progressives” versus the ­“pragmatists”.

It’s why you hear Humza Yousaf drop the term progressive into all his ­deliberations, promising to keep that particular flame burning should he gain the top job.

Progressive is a term which has been carefully remodelled to suggest that ­progressive Scotland will aye be at the cutting edge of social progress. As a ­progressive feminist, I kinda feel this ­terminology has been appropriated and reinterpreted by some folks who’ve ­decided it means whatever they happen to support at any one time. If the ­country at large can’t keep up, then hell mend them.

Such has been the outpouring of ­support for Humza from many colleagues and party insiders that a cynic might ­suppose a level of orchestration has been involved. Not least when supporters say much the same words garlanded by much the same yellow frame. I mention this not because I’m attached to conspiracy ­theories, but because I happen to know some of these public utterances are at odds with ­previously expressed private ones.

The other much-used code word ­during all those debates is continuity. Kate Forbes reiterates at every turn that ­continuity won’t cut it, whilst Humza opines that if continuity means keeping winning elections, then let’s have more of it.

The thing is, I well remember the ­Scottish Labour Party making much the same point in the days when they ­boasted a red rosette on a passing ­donkey would come first in the local poll. When ­continuity becomes kneejerk ­complacency, a party may be in bother.

So here we are with another two weeks of this phoney war. Another two weeks when three people from the same stable are having to woo their own membership whilst simultaneously suggesting to the country at large that they are the future. Getting enough party members onside is just base camp for whoever triumphs. There is a party to heal and a country to inspire in the immediate in tray.

For what it’s worth, I believe Mr Yousaf when he says that he will be a loyal ­colleague if he fails to win himself. For what it’s worth, I believe Ms Forbes when she says her private convictions will not be foisted on party policy-making. ­Having had her early campaign stall before it had even started properly, she now knows why Alastair Campbell interrupted a ­question to Tony Blair with the stern warning that they “didn’t do God”.

FOR many of us with no vote and no actual skin in the game, these are confusing times. The choice lies between a woman whom I don’t believe is ready for office, a man whom I believe lacks the width of skills for the top job, amiable and hard-working though he is, and a woman who possesses all the front-of-house charm and articulacy the post demands, but whose private convictions are completely foreign territory to this long-since lapsed Congregationalist.

People say, quite legitimately, that ­leaders can grow into the job. And some do. Yet they require certain qualities to make a decent fist of an almost impossible job description. As everyone he’d come across was aware, Boris Johnson lacked anything approximating a work ethic. He was never able to grasp the ­enormity of the job nor did he want to. His ­modus operandi was always to wing it, to ­assume that cracking poor jokes in Latin and cod French would be an ­adequate ­substitute for bothering his ample backside about briefing papers. Alarming in a mayor, downright catastrophic in a prime ­minister.

Before Liz Truss defeated Rishi ­Sunak in a poll of the Tory membership, lest we forget, she was always at or near the top of party polling conducted by ­Conservative Home. I never figured that out – ­given that she has always possessed the ­oratorical skill level of the average plank. And let’s not get started on her ­economic ­credentials lest we take a ­collective bad turn.

Being First Minister of Scotland was a daunting prospect in the early days of ­Holyrood. It is a hundred times more ­difficult now. It demands an ­extraordinary level of commitment and intrudes on every aspect of your life. I suggest, if the candidates want a little light ­weekend reading, they ponder Ms Sturgeon’s ­resignation speech. By common consent, she is one powerful woman. And, ­eventually, it all became too much.