THE Great Tapestry of Scotland, which was unveiled in the Scottish Parliament earlier this month, is the longest in the world.

Inspired by the novelist Alexander McCall Smith, designed by the artist Andrew Crummy and stitched by 1000 volunteers, it depicts Scottish history as a seamless story from the Ice Age to Andy Murray. But it has deliberately been left uncompleted because of the referendum. This tapestry, as Donald Dewar might have put it, is a process not an event.

The tapestry project is a classic exercise in slightly bonkers Scottish patriotism. It captured the imagination of countless Scots, many of whom - like the writer who inspired it - could never be accused of being cheerleaders for Alex Salmond. The enduring paradox of Scottish politics is, as I explain in my book Road To Referendum, that Scots are intensely nationalistic until it comes to the question of independence. Rightly or wrongly, Scots have rarely regarded themselves as an oppressed nation, even though they clearly lost political and economic autonomy in 1707.

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Journalists visiting from Canada, Spain and Germany to report on the independence campaign find this hard to grasp. Isn't Scotland just like Ireland, an oppressed Celtic nation fighting against English domination, only 100 years late? Well, no it isn't. Before Ireland became independent after the civil war in the 1920s there had been a century of political agitation and struggle. In the 19th century, far from demanding liberation, Scots were heavily involved in helping the British to dominate and colonise the southern hemisphere. In India, Africa and the Far East, Scots fought the British Empire's wars, ran its colonial administrations, kept its books and evangelised the colonial heathen.

The most famous Scotsman of the Victorian era, the explorer and missionary David Livingstone, was an intensely patriotic Scot, who recited Burns's A Man's A Man to the natives in central Africa, yet he lobbied Lord Palmerston to make Nyasaland a British protectorate and called the Victoria Falls after the Queen of England.

Most Scots regarded Great Britain as a joint project in which they were the leading edge, the best of British, the ones who got stuck in and made the Empire work, even managing slave plantations in the West Indies while the effete English upper classes - who ultimately benefited - lived at ease in their country estates. Scots were so in love with Britain that, when war broke out in 1914, more Scots volunteered for service in the imperial army than any other region of Britain - and more of them died.

What has this got to do with the referendum? Everything. September 2014 will be one of the great moments in Scottish history, up there with 1320, 1603, 1707, 1999, its place already assigned in the Great Tapestry. But perhaps the stitchers should just have sewn a big question mark. Political nationalism is a very recent phenomenon in Scotland. The Scottish National Party didn't come into existence until 1934, and it spent the next 30 years in division and electoral irrelevance. After the Second World War, even as the Empire was dismantled, Scots remained intensely loyal to Great Britain. In the 1955 General Election, the SNP came nowhere, with 0.1% of the vote.

It wasn't until Scotland went into steep industrial decline in the 1970s that the SNP made any significant electoral progress - as a protest movement based on its claim to "Scotland's oil". But it crashed and burned in 1979 after the failed devolution referendum, and during the 1980s - the Thatcher years - Nationalism was largely irrelevant until Jim Sillars won the Govan by-election in 1988 as the anti-poll tax candidate. The SNP was not represented in the Scottish Constitutional Convention that fought for and won the restoration of the Scottish Parliament after 300 years.

Even during the early years of Holyrood, the Nationalists made little impact - until Alex Salmond, the king o'er the water, returned from self-imposed exile in Westminster to lead the SNP to its first narrow victory in 2007. It is a testament to Alex Salmond's extraordinary powers of persuasion that he managed to turn that into an SNP landslide in 2011, triggering the referendum. Except of course, that 2011 wasn't a vote for independence.

Scots voted SNP in 2011 because they were scunnered with Scottish Labour and had been much impressed by the conduct of the SNP ministerial team during its minority government after 2007. So, it is hardly surprising that Yes Scotland is having an uphill struggle persuading Scots that they should go the extra mile, or miles, and vote for independence in 2014.

Unlike the patriotic nationalism of the Tapestry, political nationalism is a very novel idea. It is only in the last two years that Scots have thought seriously about political independence at all. Which explains why so many Scots in opinion surveys say they don't really understand what it means. They want more information, a prospectus, guarantees, reassurance. This is not a good place for an independence movement to be.

When countries in Eastern Europe sought independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, they didn't need to be told what freedom meant. It was something they felt in their very souls - an irrepressible desire to be liberated from foreign tyranny. In Catalonia today, the nationalists don't hold arcane debates about whether and how long it might take for Catalonia to renegotiate entry to the European Union. They march on the streets in their hundreds of thousands to defy Madrid and demand control of their own affairs. In Norway's referendum on independence from Sweden in 1905, people didn't say "mebbes aye, mebbes no": they voted yes by more than 99%. In fact, only 186 Norwegians voted no - and this was long before anyone knew about North Sea oil.

Yes Scotland can only look on results like that and despair. Scots do not, on the whole, feel like an oppressed nation, and most feel little animosity towards England. The argument here has not been about freedom but about littler things: degrees of economic advantage, preserving the achievements of devolution, resisting the neoliberalism of Tory governments, countering the economic dominance of London, getting a better deal from North Sea oil. This is a much more difficult campaign to mount because it lacks any emotional dimension, a cry of freedom.

This partly explains why it has been so easy for Westminster governments, backed by the UK Treasury, to arouse anxieties about independence in so-called Project Fear. Scots are told they might lose their pensions, lose the pound, lose trade with England, be kicked out of Europe and left alone and impoverished. In fact, none of these things is likely to happen, but it's hard to disprove a hypothetical. The UK Chancellor has even managed to make Scotland's oil wealth part of the fear index by warning that the oil price is volatile. Indeed, it is - though most countries in the world would give their eye teeth for a natural asset worth £1.5 trillion, according to Oil & Gas UK, no matter how volatile the revenues.

The Yes campaign has had very little success in countering Project Fear. It has failed to grasp Scotland by the head or the heart, as most opinion polls suggest. The best it can say, one year before the referendum, is that the number of "don't knows" is up. So, what can they do to prevent plunging to a crushing defeat that would resonate for decades and probably plunge Scotland into a stew of bitterness and reproach?

Nationalists can point to Norway, Denmark and Finland as models of small communitarian countries which have achieved economic success with low levels of inequality and high levels of social protection. But to most Scots these are countries far away of which they know little. They don't even go on holiday there, while most have relatives they visit in England.

Yes Scotland can also promise a more dynamic economy with independence. But while there are deep structural problems with the Scottish economy, largely to do with capital and skills being sucked to London, GDP per head in Scotland is not far behind that of the southeast of England's. Indeed, so keen is Alex Salmond on commending his government's success in attracting inward investment, promoting green energy and boosting youth employment, that he sometimes seems to be arguing against himself. The First Minister has compounded this by sounding increasingly Unionist.

The SNP leader has cited six unions with England, five of which he wants to keep: the union of the crowns with the Queen; a "defence union" through Nato; a "currency union" keeping the pound; the European Union; and the social union. In his "Declaration of Nigg" in July, he said: "It is only the political [union] designating Westminster as the sovereign parliament that requires change." This new Unionism has puzzled many on both sides of the Border and both sides of the constitutional argument. After all, the political union was surely changed forever by the coming of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Yes Scotland's task is now doubly difficult. It has to paint a picture of national independence while arguing that the Bank of England will still set interest rates, the Treasury will keep a grip on the Scottish budget, nuclear weapons could remain on the Clyde at least for a time, the Queen would be head of state, and many other things, such as pensions, benefits and energy subsidies, would remain UK-wide. It looks as if Scots are being urged to vote for independence to get a better devolution.

The FM's intention is, of course, to appeal to the majority of voters, who support "devolution max" or "devolution plus" and who want to see the Scottish Parliament gain substantial economic and tax-raising powers within the overall framework of the UK. He wants the disenfranchised majority to vote Yes out of frustration at being presented with a choice of unacceptable alternatives: between separation and the status quo. It is a difficult argument because, as critics point out, independence is not just for Christmas, it's forever, and it is independence, not devolution max that is on the ballot paper.

This is where the Nationalist version of Project Fear may come into play. In the run-up to September 2014, Scots will be warned that, if they vote No, they will be seen to have bottled it and Westminster will no longer feel it has to placate Scotland. Indeed, there may be moves to diminish the powers of the Scottish Parliament, as has been urged by some Scottish Labour MPs. The number of Scottish MPs at Westminster is likely to be reduced further as moves are made to address the West Lothian Question.

The Barnett formula will be axed and something a lot less generous installed in its place, as urged by Tory MPs who believe Scotland gets too much public money. There could be pressure to abolish things like free personal care and free prescription charges and restore university tuition fees, on the grounds that these are unacceptable anomalies in the unitary UK that Scots have voted in favour of. Nuclear weapons will, of course, remain indefinitely on the Clyde. The UK Government's welfare reforms, bedroom tax included, will continue to be imposed on Scotland. And you can, of course, forget about North Sea oil revenue. Scotland will revert to being a peripheral backwater, a depressed province, where sentimental patriots weep in their beer while young Scots emigrate to seek a better life.

So the Unionists aren't the only ones who can use negative campaigning. A picture will be painted of Scotland harnessed to an increasingly right-wing and xenophobic Tory Westminster, which tells immigrants to "go home", victimises welfare "scroungers", and looks after its friends in the City. The Yes campaign will have a number of opportunities to promote the "Unionist threat" in the next 12 months, starting this October with the roll-out of Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit, and the next stage of welfare reform.

The Nationalists will also be able to argue, with some justification, that by remaining in the UK, Scotland could be forced to leave the European Union. This is because Ukip is likely to do well in the European elections in June 2014 and it is likely that Ed Miliband will join David Cameron in calling for an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU.

What is undeniable is that Scotland's political culture, dominated by two broadly social democratic parties, is already very different to England's. There is no party of the right in Scotland, no anti-immigration party like the True Finns in Finland. Scotland doesn't even have a Conservative Party of any significance, and when Nigel Farage of Ukip came to Edinburgh in March 2013 he had to seek refuge in an Edinburgh pub after being pursued by demonstrators protesting, not about his Englishness, but his policies on immigration and welfare.

If Scots do decide to vote Yes next year, and it is striking how many of the leftish chattering classes seem minded so to do, it will not be for the traditional reasons, but to defend an idea of Scotland that they feel is under threat. Essentially, this is the old, social democratic Scotland that Labour used to stand for. Scots will be voting, not for a better tomorrow, but a better yesterday.

And perhaps, for the first time in 200 years, Scotland is beginning to feel, if not oppressed, then coerced by a neo-liberal political culture based in Westminster. Perhaps the tapestry is right after all: this game isn't over yet.