I want to start off with a history lesson.
In 2003, Labour, under Jack McConnell, was returned with a plurality in the Scottish Parliament. The same had happened under a different leader four years before. And, four years before there had been a faction, myself included, that had argued that we should have formed a minority administration and built a majority on a bill by bill basis.
But then, big Donald, steeped in Westminster experience, had decreed that a Government required a guaranteed overall majority in the chamber on all important matters. So, when, in 1999, the newly elected Labour MPs washed up in Edinburgh for the first time they were ushered into a receiving room past Donald and Henry, who each shook their hand in a manner that, Frank McAveety later recalled, reminded you of the bride and groom at a gay wedding. Donald then addressed the assembled rank and file to advise them that he had decided that a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was the only way forward. And no one demurred.
So, in the 2003 aftermath, such a renewed coalition appeared the obvious way forward. And Jack, by then our leader, was sent off to seal the deal.
To be honest, I can't remember what the Libs "wanted" in 1999. But I do know what it was in 2003: PR for local government. So when Jack came back to the Labour Group to advise that, unfortunately and despite his best argument, he had conceded that to them, who were the Labour Group to argue?
All very straightforward, Except that, actually, Jack was in favour of PR for Local Government. He'd written a Scottish Labour Action pamphlet making that very argument long before he'd ever thought he might be First Minister. To have to concede that "demand" as the price of coalition was, in reality, no concession at all. It was a way of by-passing an argument that he could not win, internally, within the Labour Party
So what's the point of this modern history lesson?
Alex Salmond was in exactly the same position in the run up to 2007. Like Donald, he saw the attraction of a majority administration. And, like Donald, he saw the Libs as his only conceivable partners. And like Jack he realised that they would want a concession. And like Jack he realised that this might be a concession that would deliver the policy he actually favoured. So if the Libs had demanded a second question within any Independence Referendum called in the aftermath of 2007 as the price of coalition, this was a demand he would have "reluctantly" conceded. But the Libs wouldn't play.
All subsequent Scottish politics has to be understood against that background.
Now here I must pay Eck some credit. He doesn't really want a second question. Indeed, in an ideal world he doesn't even want a referendum, and not in the cynical version of that omission I have advanced.
Ideally, Eck would like to fight a Scottish Parliamentary election on the basis that an SNP victory would be a mandate to directly negotiate the dissolution of the United Kingdom. But he knows he could not win on that basis, hence the original compromise that at the best (or worst), such a victory would mean simply a referendum. But he also knows that he couldn't win such a referendum. Everybody secretly knows that, even the wilder cybernats who maintain that the opinion polls themselves are part of a Unionist conspiracy.
Eck also knows however that his Party rank and file really believe that the Party's non negotiable objective must be to achieve independence. It was that which caused them to drive out John McCormick in favour, even, of Nazi apologisers in the 1940s and which later saw the triumph of the fundies in the early 1980s.
But Eck also believes that any step towards greater devolution is a welcome step forward, unlike many of his rank and file who would decry it as a compromise or, worse, a betrayal. So, just like Jack, who could never have found a way to persuade the vested interests in the Labour Party to embrace PR, Eck thought that the Libs would give him a way out. Only, as I say, they wouldn't.
His mistake (he might think otherwise) was to stick to the strategy of forced compromise when it was unclear, to say the least, as to who was forcing it upon him. There is not a single political Party in Scotland which publicly supports anything other than a yes/no vote. Not the pro-independence SNP, Greens or SSP; nor the anti-independence Labour, Tories or Libs. Even the various rag, tag and bobtails who do support a second question do so in the belief that a defined option will emerge and concede that there is no prospect of that happening.
Now, not a soul believes for a minute that the "consultation analysis" will credibly throw up an overwhelming demand for something different from a direct choice. But as Uncle Joe famously observed, it's not who votes that count, it's who counts the votes. We are told this "analysis" will report in the Autumn but, for what it is worth, I can confidently predict that "the Autumn" will prove to be some date after 21st October, when the SNP Conference ends. That buys more time.
In the end however you can't run away for ever. Eck, at some point will either have to adopt either the model of the Grand Old Duke of York or that of Lord Cardigan, in command of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
For legal reasons I have already outlined at length http://ianssmart.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/succulent-mince.html there will then either be a resignation to a direct yes/no vote or an attempt to keep the second question alive in the knowledge that this will mean no vote at all.
My money's still with the Grand Old Duke.