IN a parallel universe, an alternative stream of history, Alex Salmond didn’t hold a referendum in 2014. Instead, he delayed it and waited for events to take hold. There was then a vote for Brexit, Boris Johnson was elected PM, and support for independence soared to over 60 per cent. Mr Salmond then held his referendum and won it. What a master tactician. What a brilliant politician. What a hero.

Except that’s not what happened, is it? In reality, the referendum did go ahead in 2014, Mr Salmond resigned after he lost it, and in the five years that have followed, support for independence has struggled to get over 50 per cent, let alone anywhere near 60. The Brexit bounce hasn’t happened. Neither has the Boris one.

Mr Salmond thinks things could have been different though. In fact, in a tweet this week, the former First Minister said that, had he known then what we know now about Brexit, he would have delayed the referendum and there would now be 60-plus support for independence. The tweet was framed as a game of What If? but the implication from Mr Salmond was obvious: given the current circumstances, support for independence should be over 60 per cent, and if Mr Salmond was in charge it would be.

However, the problem for Mr Salmond’s version of events is that his game of what-could-have-happened is scuppered by what actually did. In fact, if you want to know why it’s the case that, despite all the factors that seem to be in the SNP’s favour, support for independence isn’t as high as 60 per cent, my advice is: go back to the start and look at the story of the man who promoted the idea of unionism in the first place: King James VI and I.

One of the first things that will strike you is how familiar James’s story seems; you also can’t fail to notice the similarities between the debate that raged about starting the union 400 years ago and the debate that’s raging about ending it now. In the bookstalls of London and Edinburgh in the early 17th century, there were pamphlets explaining why unionism was a wonderful idea; there were also pamphlets warning of the dangers. As for the King himself, he was definitely of the Better Together persuasion. “This kingdom was divided into seven little kingdoms,” he said in an address to Parliament. “Is it not now the stronger by their union?”

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Anyone who experienced the 2014 referendum, and indeed the 2016 one, will recognise those kind of opinions. In the 1600s, there were also Brexit-style arguments over what kind of union Scotland and England should have – was the best idea some kind of loose, federation or should the countries go for a much closer, Wales-style deal instead? And as the debate deepened, someone even made the dreaded suggestion of a commission to sort it all out.

The arguments that raged at the time can also help demonstrate why, in 2019, the independence camp can’t get much beyond 50 per cent. Francis Bacon, in a private paper written for the King about the Union question, said that a grain of separation between Scotland and England was wrapped up in every issue, but in a popular tract, the pro-union John Thornborough asked: Can any man be Scottish and not English?

The point is that the divisions over unionism were there right at the start and they’re still with us 400 years later. Some Scots are discomfited, or even repulsed, by the dual identity suggested by Thornborough; others embraced it from the start and still do and, as long as they continue to feel that way, it’s hard to see the polls changing much. It’s as if two sides of the collective Scottish psyche took different views in the 1600s and, 400 years on, still do.

Of course, there are other issues that explain the fact nationalism is stuck on around 50 per cent. There’s a concern that the chaos seen in the Brexit process could be replicated big-time by Scotland leaving the UK. There’s also a feeling of fatigue among some with Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence she wants a referendum before 2021. A lot of people just don’t believe her and that has an effect: if politicians keep saying things they don’t mean, or things that aren’t true, they encourage scepticism about their opinions in general and are therefore unlikely to attract more support.

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As for Alex Salmond’s view on what could have happened in a parallel universe, the point is this: Mr Salmond may think support for independence could be soaring to 60 per cent by now, but I suggest he takes a look at actual history before talking about an alternative one. We do not live in unprecedented times. The idea of unionism has always been controversial. It has always divided opinion. There have always been Scots who have cherished a British identity. Those are the facts of the past and the present. They are likely to be the facts of the future too.