SINCE ALEX SALMOND is no slouch when it comes to poking his opponents in the eye it should not surprise anyone that (some) Unionists derive some satisfaction from using the Olympics as a cudgel with which to thump the First Minister and the SNP.
They might, however, be wise to remember that Mr Salmond plans to hold his referendum just a few months after the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Since these will be hosted by Glasgow it seems reasonable to suppose the nationalists hope to enjoy a patriotic bounce comparable in nature, if not in size, to that enjoyed by Britannia during London's moment in the sun. What goes around comes around even if the Commonwealth Games is a tiny, local, affair compared to the Olympics.
Nevertheless, these Olympics, more than any other I can recall, are manna for Unionists. What better symbol is there of the idea that Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are "better together"? Indeed, the sourer type of Scottish nationalist might complain that the Olympic games, like Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee before it, is an artfully-constructed piece of British nationalist propaganda.
Indeed, the opening ceremony - which cleverly, yet subtly, reminded viewers that the United Kingdom is not the same as England - was a stirring hymn to British exceptionalism. From the industrial revolution to the world wide web via the pop sounds of the sixties and seventies, Danny Boyle spun a story of great Great British greatness. If it was necessarily selective it was still a surprisingly coherent tale that could not help but be, in its DNA, a small-u unionist spectacular.
All this has placed the SNP in an awkward position. Ministers have been quick to salute Scottish athletes' successes but reluctant, for all the obvious reasons, to note that they've taken place within a British context. At times this has seemed small-minded while the talk of "Scolympians" has been close to fatuous.
No wonder some SNP MSPs - notably Humza Yousuf [http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/humza-yousaf/when-it-comes-to-the-olympics-_b_1746959.html?utm_hp_ref=tw] - have tried to play down the political context of the British team's successes. In one sense this is reasonable, though it is amusing to see nationalists accuse their opponents of populist point-scoring and cheeky opportunism.
It is not that an independent Scotland could not win its share of Olympic medals. New Zealand's successes in rowing, equestrianism and other sports demonstrate that. (Of course, as Jim Telfer once observed, albeit in a rugby context, New Zealanders are "Scots who have learned to win".) Nevertheless, only the most blinkered nationalist could deny that access to UK resources - and partnership with athletes from other parts of the United Kingdom - has made it easier for the likes of Katherine Grainger, Chris Hoy and Scott Brash to win medals.
That is not the Unionists' best argument, however. The stronger Unionist line is that while Scots would have plenty to cheer when supporting their "own" team in the Olympics their ability to enjoy victories won by the likes of Ben Ainslie or Mo Farah would, inevitably, be compromised if Scotland were no longer part of the United Kingdom. The "social union" so beloved by the First Minister has its limits. (Similarly, English or Welsh or Irish fans would find their enjoyment of Andy Murray's successes diminished.)
In this sense at least the Olympics spawns this question: do you consider the likes of Jessica Ennis or Beth Tweddle foreigners? The answer, for most Scots, is "not really". If this remains the case then the argument for full-strength independence must be weakened. (That said, it is certainly possible to be a Scottish nationalist and a reasonably ardent supporter of what we are now supposed to call "Team GB". Such nationalists may be in a minority but they certainly exist even if others, the majority perhaps, plainly see supporting British athletes as something to be tholed for the time being only.)
Still, it is easy to make too much of the games. Will these Olympics spawn an Era of Good Feelings? No they will not. Politics as usual will return in the autumn. Nevertheless, the argument about Scotland's constitutional future is really two arguments. The first is emotional (or, if you prefer, sentimental), the second economic. Contradictions abound: it is, for instance, perfectly feasible to be a Unionist by inclination but an economic nationalist by calculation. And the reverse is also true.
The Olympics may best be understood as a means of illuminating the often complex layers of identity and affinity enjoyed by people in these islands. The difficulty for the nationalists is that, such is the depth and antiquity of the links between north and south, east and west, the more these relations are contemplated the harder it is to see how they can be satisfactorily and painlessly picked apart. The "social union" is a useful construct but there are moments - and the Olympics are one - in which it seems unnecessarily long-winded and could usefully be replaced by something snappier. It might even be called something like "The Union".