All the action from first minister's questions

It is perhaps a factor of maturity (a description much to be preferred, don't you agree, to the toxically caustic "age") that one is inclined to view events through the prism of semi-recollected anecdotes.

Such was my experience on observing Holyrood as the first minister dealt with the latest round of questions from his Labour opponent, Johann Lamont.

Into my mind popped a memory of a long previous minister, then at the Scottish Office, who was being quizzed in the Commons about an issue where, to be charitable, his grasp of detail was less than complete.

He told his tormentor: "That is a good question. A very good question indeed. But not half as good as the questions I am going to be asking when I get back to the department this afternoon."

Not, you understand, that Alex Salmond's command of the chamber or the subject was anything less than total. The comparison does not extend that far.

It is simply to note that democracy works through a series of levers, with gears. Opposition leader puts pressure on Minister. Minister puts pressure on senior civil servants as a consequence. And so on down the chain. Levers, with gears.

On this occasion, the topic was one which could scarcely be more serious: the treatment or rather mistreatment of vulnerable children and the efforts by authorities to counter such behaviour.

I believe Ms Lamont is to be commended for the fashion in which she raised the topic.

Specifically, she questioned how much credence could be attached to positive reports given by inspectors to Renfrewshire Council when there had been two grave failings in that area leading, in one case, to the death of Declan Hainey.

I believe, further, that First Minister Alex Salmond is to be commended for the fashion in which he responded.

While noting that no system could guarantee 100% protection, he urged parliamentarians to work together, including through a forthcoming bill on child safety, to ensure that the system was as effective as possible.

He argued further that the inspectorate system was constantly being upgraded and that there was evidence it was producing valuable results.

In response to Ms Lamont's specific demand for a public inquiry into the issue, it was noted later that there is to be a fatal accident inquiry into the tragic case of young Declan - which will be able to suggest wider lessons.

In all, these were serious, sombre exchanges.

Plus you can bet that, even now, Mr Salmond's private office is making further checks to ensure that, as promised, the system is under active scrutiny. As it should be.

The exchanges with Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives were less satisfactory, for different reasons.

Ms Davidson repeated her previous question, urging the first minister to disclose whether his phone had been hacked by News International or anyone else.

The first minister repeated his previous reply to the effect that this was a matter best dealt with by the Leveson Inquiry in the first place, to which he is due to give evidence next month.

No leverage

And there, for now, it rests.

On another topic, that of the referendum.

Today we will see published the detailed responses to the UK government's consultation on said subject.

The Scottish government is presently analysing the responses to its consultation. Those who favour independence will launch their campaign next week.

The date now looks pretty firmly fixed as being October 2014 - not least because the prime minister is "not fussed" about the issue of timing.

That will have come as no surprise whatsoever to regular readers of these musings - where just such an outcome has frequently been tracked, including around the time of the Scottish Conservative conference.

UK ministers have no leverage at all over the date - other than the prospect, which they reject, of holding their own ballot.

They can say to Alex Salmond: "Please hold it earlier". He can and does say No. Beyond that, nothing.

Further obstacles

However, as again tracked here repeatedly, UK ministers have considerable influence over the question(s) to be asked.

The Scottish government actively seeks a Section 30 transfer of powers which would give it formal legal sanction to hold a plebiscite.

The estimable Bruce Crawford, fresh from doing a deal over the Scotland Act, says any negotiation over Section 30 must be "without strings".

As a Dunfermline fan, Mr Crawford is already inured to disappointment - and I fear he will find further obstacles here.

UK ministers will not readily transfer powers unless and until they are reassured that there will be, as they want, but a single question on independence.

As to wording, that can probably now be left to the Electoral Commission to guide - although, as ever, it is parliament (the Scottish version) which will legislate for a Referendum Bill.

More on this anon. Much more.

PS: Grand to see Margo MacDonald back in her place at Holyrood after medical care.