LET’S play nice this week and start with something we can all agree on: the beauty of the Scottish countryside. I’m thinking in particular of Galloway and John Buchan’s description of it in The Thirty-Nine Steps. There’s a bit early on in the book in which Richard Hannay has gone on the run from Newton Stewart and suddenly the countryside around him makes him feel light-hearted. “I might have been a boy out for a spring holiday tramp instead of a man wanted by the police,” he says. “There was no plan in my head, only to go on and on in this blessed, honest-smelling hill country.”

Most of us, I imagine, will have felt something similar to Hannay at some point: the power of the Scottish landscape to make us feel better. But isn’t it a shame Scotland’s politics rarely has the same effect? Instead, in the last few days, this blessed country has seen yet more bitter debate about nationalism and the views of one nationalist in particular, Andrew Wilson. Mr Wilson, you will remember, was the man behind the SNP’s Growth Commission last year, so we should pay attention.

The most controversial bit of Mr Wilson’s most recent pronouncement for hard nationalists is his support for “soft” independence. Some nationalists would like to move immediately to a Marxist state, he says, but the party should try to create a platform for a softer independence that might win broad support. “The reality,” he says, “is change of such significance in any organisation, let alone a major country, is a process rather than an event.”

Mr Wilson does not go into great detail about what he means by a soft break-up, but I think he may be onto something and, strangely, I think The Thirty-Nine Steps and John Buchan can help. Most fans of Buchan know he had a strong romantic bond with his homeland – you can tell that from the descriptions of Galloway in The Thirty-Nine Steps; they may also know that he once said, “every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist”. But the important point is he was a very particular type of nationalist and, crucially for Mr Wilson’s idea of soft independence, it’s one that still exists in great numbers today.

The speech Buchan gave during a debate in the Commons in 1932 while he was an MP gives a more detailed idea of his views. The subject was home rule for Scotland, which at the time was attracting more support (the SNP would be founded just two years later) and in the end, Buchan told the Commons he did not back a Scottish parliament. However, he also said that if it could be proved it would be advantageous, then Scots should support it.

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This is a pretty clear example of the kind of nationalism Buchan preferred: you might call it patriotic pragmatism, although perhaps there’s a better way to describe a slice of Scottish opinion that has been somewhat forgotten. In a new biography of her grandfather to be published in April, Ursula Buchan also attempts to capture the novelist’s views and settles on an interesting description. John Buchan wasn’t a unionist, she says, but he wasn’t a nationalist either. He was a “unionist nationalist” with concentric, not warring, loyalties.

I realise that in the current climate, “unionist nationalist” is a confusing term, but I also think it’s the right one for Buchan and other Scots with similar views. Not only that, I think the SNP is unlikely to attract greater support until they better understand how “unionist nationalists” think. Thankfully, Buchan’s 1932 speech is helpful in this regard because he explains it perfectly.

First of all, the unionist nationalist is just as likely as any SNP supporter to have romantic views about Scotland – in Buchan’s words, nationalism on romantic or historical grounds is “perfectly respectable”. The unionist nationalist is also likely to believe decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland or with Scotland’s consent. To quote Buchan again, if there’s something wrong with Scotland, it’s the business of Scots to put it right.

However, Scots in the mould of Buchan are not just nationalists, they’re internationalists and they would reject putting a nation’s interests first whatever the consequences, as in “America First” or “Scotland First”. Buchan put it this way: “it would be a bad day if Scottish MPs ever came to support a measure which was for the moment good for Scotland, but was demonstrably bad for England … or the world.” This is a critical point and explains why the SNP’s “Standing up for Scotland” slogan rings hollow for some voters.

Which brings us to possibly the most important quality of the unionist nationalist, which is that they keep their romantic nature in balance with their pragmatic side and make decisions on what they see as the economic facts. Buchan said Scotland was a nation in the closest corporate alliance with her southern neighbour, and that to attempt to separate them would be a costly blunder. “I do not believe,” he said, “and no Scotsman believes, in spending money without a proper return.”

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In writing his report last year, Andrew Wilson seems to have understood all of this; his awareness of the concerns of those who might be described as unionist nationalists also explains his call for slow progress towards a soft independence – the question is how soft it has to be. Admittedly, some unionist nationalists will never support complete independence, particularly if it is done precipitately, but perhaps they could be persuaded to support something lighter, a third way in which Scotland loosens the ties of the union until the point where it would be economically harmful – in other words, it would remain at least as close to the rest of the UK as the UK used to be with EU, although possibly much closer.

I realise Mr Wilson has something much more like traditional independence in mind, but I think he should at least give John Buchan’s speech a read. Among other things, Buchan warned against “artificial nationalism” which manufactures differences, but more importantly he promoted “sane nationalism” based on what is economically good for the country. At the time, many Scots would have agreed with him. I think many Scots still do.