MY friend and fellow Sunday Herald columnist, Martin Stepek, calms Scotland with his regular mindfulness newsletter. The latest is headed Sleep Wonderful Sleep, and begins: “Many of us are quite fatigued. More tired than we should be. This tiredness leads to ‘grumpiness and lack of ability to think clearly’.” So it does. On Tuesday, as she postponed the next independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon spoke ruefully of the people she had met during the election campaign who “wanted a break from the pressure of making big political decisions”. Scunnered, “quite fatigued” and girny with it. Thinking unclearly by the time June 8 arrived, many Scots had flung their vote in the pollsters’ faces and stumbled back upstairs for more “sleep, wonderful sleep”.

And to dream? Some people now let themselves hope that the “independence dream is dead” or at least dying. In that Tuesday debate, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale were irritated, as well as surprised, to find that Sturgeon had merely shifted the next indyref along the calendar. They want the idea of Scotland’s independence to dwindle into a childish night fancy, wiped out of memory by the bright morning of “the day job”. But that’s not how it works. What’s true is that the SNP and their leader have been seriously damaged – possibly holed below the waterline in ways which aren’t yet visible. What isn’t true is the assumption that independence sinks or swims with the SNP’s fortunes. It has its own buoyancy. The First Minister’s most significant act on Tuesday was her turn towards the wider non-party independence movement –the place where the ideas and energy now seem to come from.

To switch the metaphor to biology, the idea of independence never leaves a body politic once it gets into the system. It can go quiet and almost dormant for long periods. Like many Scots today, many Czech, Irish and Polish people a century ago thought: “I’d be so proud to see my country take its own place among the nations, but with the world in this chaos, it’s not likely to happen.” But then they changed their minds, or the world changed their minds for them, and the smouldering idea suddenly flamed. “Wake up! It’s time, it’s now!” The idea is irrevocably in the Scottish genome today. No longer a fancy-dress pageant or a “bourgeois deviation”, but a sober policy option. Hard to say when it entered the bloodstream decisively. Perhaps in the 1970s, as the SNP began to score victories. Or perhaps, as I suspect, in the run-up years to the 1997 and 2014 referendums when – for the first time – campaigners asked the people what they wanted. “What sort of Scotland? Grass-roots local democracy? A land tax? An oil fund?”

No-one quite gets over the shock of being asked by politicians, instead of told. Invited to help design your own country? Devolution has thrown up many reform ideas, but not provided the tools to do enough about them. So the “independence infection” means that active people will continue to glance at what might be done better in a nation which could take all its own decisions. Independence is famously a one-way street. Once gained, even at the price of pain and loss, nations can’t imagine how they did without it. In the same way, that habit of imagining wider possibilities in a condition of independence is now ingrained. “Sure, we could if we were. But we aren’t. So sit down and get back to the agenda.”

History and experience say that the tide, showing some ebb now, will certainly flood again. It’s not possible to say when or why. Objectively, Scotland’s roots in the Union are growing looser and weaker almost by the month, but political-science articles don’t reverse opinion flows. Neither can we know who will surf that tide. But it might well not be the SNP. That is because in Scotland we are not talking about old-fashioned nationalism any more. We have started to do something else called “nationality politics”: the jostling and competing of political forces originally created by nationalism but now operating in a globalised world. So it could be some hybrid, say a rebel Scottish Labour Party linked with the Greens and radical seceders from the SNP, which finally leads a free Respublica Scotorum out into the world. Less probably, it could be a much angrier, more impatient formation now hidden in its chrysalis. Remember how Sinn Fein came from behind and wiped out the Irish parliamentary Home Rulers in 1918 ?

But that would mean reverting to an obsolescent nationalism: all victimhood and faded flags. Slightly more imaginable is a Tory-led coalition of “Middle Scots”, breaking away from a left-wing, high-tax England. I have several times heard Conservative grandees, beyond a bottle or so, sigh about the gorgeous careers they could enjoy in a sovereign Caledonia – advocates especially. There’s no limit to what people will do if they think their property is threatened or a gravy train is ready for boarding. Never underestimate Tory opportunism. Above all in a small, subordinated nation like Scotland, where seizing opportunities has long been understood as a form of patriotism.

Thoughts like that don’t help the Scottish Government, the SNP membership or the wider independence movement. Their cause seems to be in trouble. At home, a haar of voter disillusion is dimming the road ahead. At UK level, Scotland is clearly going to be torn out of the European Union against its will and Holyrood will be steamrollered by Westminster if it obstructs. The idea that Ruth Davidson’s Tory MPs might support the SNP and the LibDems in forcing a Scotland-friendly Brexit on Theresa May’s government is a joke. Is there any other way to advance?

I think there is. As I have argued here before, there’s a different way of looking at Scotland. Formally, a subordinated nation – yes. But throw open the mental shutters, and the light of reality shows a Scotland which is pretty much independent already. We can do more or less what we wish – even if it’s not allowed. We can become a separate sovereign state tomorrow, if most of us say that we want it. Contrast that with Catalonia, approaching its day of fate on October 1 with an independence referendum which the Spanish government has forbidden by law (even declaring the ballot boxes to be Madrid’s property). So the way to behave is “As If”. If some project is outwith the terms of the Scotland Act, we should go quietly but determinedly ahead as if Scotland were a sovereign country until Westminster physically stops it. If the Home Office prepares to deport another harmless foreign family, the Scottish Government should simply tell Police Scotland not to carry out the order, tolerating a “sanctuary” network which discreetly hid such families.

Helplessness, not independence, is the false dream, the “sleep wonderful sleep” now tempting Scotland again. But the alarm is going off. Time to wake and get back to the real day job, which is (apologies to Alasdair Gray’s famous line) to work as if you lived in the early days of an independent nation. Because if you do, that is exactly where you will be living.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and author