WHEN home rule was stolen in 1979, our best novelist said that Scotland had been feart.

William McIlvanney's point was exact. The deck had been stacked and the table rigged. We watched it happen, day by day. And yet, when the important question was asked, our indecision was final. Probably.

A generation was lost thereafter in the struggle to explain how Scots had acquired a tri-polar condition, stranded between yes, no, and infinite doubt. The defeat of a proposition – a small enough thing – seemed to count for less than the spectacle of hesitation. Judged by the cliches, we were never done shouting the odds. Given a real choice, we could only panic.

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In the aftermath, you would hear it argued that this was no bad thing. We would not be hurried, said heroic optimists, into achieving John Smith's settled will. Scots would ponder; Scots would consider; Scots would bring that famous democratic intellect to bear. And take their own sweet (expletive) time before failing to rush at a decision.

In the age of Twitter, endless polling, and Tory herds stampeding because of "Europe", the habit has merit. Why would you hurry to change something three centuries in the making? The sight of a people pausing to think, and think hard, is not to be mocked, or contested.

On the other hand: come on. Can it truly be the case that, in the argument over independence, one in four still "don't know", that the number in doubt has increased by a full five percentage points, that everything still hangs on those who are, says the ancestral voice, "No sure"? Who are you people?

Our polling is better than most. It says that, despite all the political knockabout, 24% of Scots still can't decide if they fancy independent nationhood. By now, surely, they have heard it all. They know as much about central banks, nuclear deterrents and European treaties as many politicians, and more than most folk down in the Shires. Still they hesitate.

Are we, all of a sudden, a reflective people? I hadn't noticed. Are we those warrior-philosopher-poets invented by movies? Feel free to chase yourself. Scottish doubt, David Hume's gift to civilisation, has become an elaborate excuse. No-one gets offered a contract with every upstroke crossed. Yet we seem to want a deal valid beyond infinity.

That's democracy, these days. Scotland's status among the nations of the world will be decided in 2014, as things stand, by people who really don't like opinions. Nationalists and Unionists alike should pause, sometimes, if they can, and think about that.

These difficult souls are one quarter, just about, of the people on whose behalf the whole grand debate is being staged. You can't insult them, or suborn them, or bully them. You can't harass them for taking their time. Instead, it might be useful to wonder why they hesitate.

A Unionist with brains would say, for one thing, that 24% is a dangerous number. Can there be so many Scots still in doubt, after all the shiny Olympic torches and happy Royal pregnancies, after all the splendid ceremonials and loyal thoughts, about Britain? If 2012 didn't win them, their hearts and minds, nothing will. As poll-makers will surely tell you, 24% is a big figure. It says you have failed.

Yet it does not say, perversely, that Nationalism's cause has succeeded. A 28% Yes vote for independence in our poll is, frankly, dismal. What's more, the old SNP consolation – that "impossible" Holyrood majority – does not apply. Belief is not being won. Those liable to be persuaded by Alex Salmond have already been persuaded, many times over. The rest, the 24%, need something else.

Here's one, gratis. It would involve an act of self-immolation from the First Minister, an act of which he is not – I'm fairly sure – capable. But if you want to win one in four Scots, remind them that a Yes vote is not a vote for Alex Salmond, the SNP, the disposition of Trident boats, the management of a notional currency, an argument over debts, or carbon revenues, or HM Your Queen.

All of that comes later. Your vote in 2014 will be an exercise of free choice. It simply means that even the Scottish habit of doubt might be reflected in your politics, by your decision. To me, that doesn't sound trivial.

A vote in the affirmative will involve reminding the community of Scotland what it means to be feart. Then it will involve describing why independence is not Salmondland. Unionists need desperately to have it believed that a Yes vote is just a kick away from giving Alex his own wee country. That will, as even he might say, be right. The first post-independence elections should be a hoot.

The recent polls say otherwise. Our poll says, first, that those who can't choose are up on the rails with those who want their country back. Come the day, we might lose all to indecision. Those happy to be British are ahead by 20 points. They ought to be proud, all things considered. That's a lead asking to be lost.

What did our best novelist mean by feart, exactly? One kind of Scottish man, with a certain history, from certain places and times, might locate an insult or a challenge in talk of feart and fearties. I don't think that's what William McIlvanney meant. I think he caught the sound of a child in the dark, asking who she was and where she was.

I urge you to take as long as you like in making a choice over the future of your country. Anything else would be stupid. One incidental benefit of calling yourself a Scot, after all, has to do with an insane boastfulness. We are never done calling those odds.

Then you get reminded that, as it happens, things like democracy have their very origins, as ideas, in stupid wee countries liable to forget the meaning of words they once invented.

That's when you truly earn a right to be feart.