THERE was another march for independence at the weekend which meant there were the usual estimates about the size of the crowd.

It was 100,000! It was 200,000! It was a million! Every single person in Scotland was there! Except one, obviously – the First Minister, who said she was “not able to be there in person”.

Really? Couldn’t she at least have had a stab at a proper excuse? The cat’s got a headache. I’ve lost all my shoes. The house has exploded. Something. Anything. But no. She was there “in spirit”, she said.

But what do we think the real reason for Nicola Sturgeon’s absence could be? Could it be she suspects that being seen at a raggedy, messy independence march might be counter-productive? Ms Sturgeon’s strategy for attracting support for independence is to be centrist and restrained. In a sense, she’s trying to be non-nationalistic. She is seeking to attract people who, far from being stirred by the sight of thousands of saltires, are a little bit disturbed by them. They’ve read a few history books and know that lots of people carrying thousands of national flags never normally ends well.

READ MORE: In Pictures: Thousands of independence supporters march through Edinburgh

Sadly, the All Under One Banner marches have shown none of Ms Sturgeon’s restraint and, sure enough, on Saturday there were flags upon flags upon flags. There was also, as there is usually is, an intolerance of the wrong kind of flag (“no union-jacking” read one banner) and a working assumption that the opinion on the ground represents the majority. As for the marchers themselves, they were obviously having a great time, but for many of those watching, it will have looked unsophisticated, unsubtle but, worst of all, unmodern. In the age of diversity, it looks like the politics of sameness; a political monoculture enforced by the ever-flapping flag.

It also raises the question of whether the independence movement will ever understand the damage the marches could do to the chances of a Yes vote – in the way that the First Minister obviously does.

Earlier this year for example, Ms Sturgeon was more than happy to attend the People’s Vote marches in London (she was even happy to be photographed with Alastair Campbell for pity’s sake). And yet she seems to have decided independence marches in Scotland aren’t worth the risk.

And I suspect she’s right: a first minister who’s out on a march runs the risk of looking shouty and aggressive rather than calm and reasonable. Worse: it looks like they don’t have control where it matters.

However, it’s not just the Scottish nationalists who could pick up a few pointers from the independence marches – I think unionists can too, particularly on flags, real or symbolic. A few days ago, Boris Johnson said he was going to ensure that every policy the UK Government pursues, and every investment it makes in Scotland, has a Union flag on it. The Scottish Secretary Alister Jack also suggested there could be a “Union Day” bank holiday. Both men seemed to be suggesting the answer to nationalism is more nationalism of a different kind: when faced with a flag-waver, all you need to do is wave your flag higher and harder.

But as a strategy – if that’s what it is – it couldn’t be more wrong. Effectively, there are two models of unionism on offer in the 21st century. There’s option one, which is the idea of a family of nations sharing burdens and responsibilities but different identities; or there’s option two, which is the idea of unionism as much like Scottish nationalism except that the word British replaces Scottish.

The dividing line between the two options isn’t always clear of course. There are many Scots who like the idea of a progressive, federal UK but also strongly feel their British national identity.

But the question is which model is most likely to win long-lasting support from Scots, particularly Scots in the centre-ground who don’t get teary-eyed, or aggressive, or both, at the sight of a saltire.

Some unionists, like Mr Johnson and Mr Jack, seem to feel the answer is option two: slap the Union Jack on everything and hope for the best, but I think the appeal of that kind of British nationalism is narrowing. In fact, I suspect that even talk of “one nation” in a UK context may have more limited appeal than it once did, partly because the recent referendums have shown where nationalism of all kinds leads. Better to talk about a family of nations and try to appeal to a sensible Remain vote i.e. remain in the UK in the way many voters want to remain in the EU.

I’m not saying this will be easy to pull off because in some ways, it’s similar to the circle Nicola Sturgeon is trying to square in portraying herself as a non-nationalist nationalist: you’re trying to promote a model for a country that transcends an unthinking love for that country. There’s also the constant danger, with both unionism and nationalism, of the cause being undermined by its followers whipping the flags out. Take the march at the weekend for example: many observers will have felt just as uncomfortable about the small group of counter-protesters brandishing Union flags as they did about the Scottish nationalists brandishing saltires. And quite right too: they are the same thing.

READ MORE: Pro-independence march 'could be city's biggest ever demo'

The answer for the future, I hope, is for a more measured, calmer approach that doesn’t rely on people stomping down streets with flags. The people who marched through Edinburgh at the weekend no doubt thought the size of the crowd represented a turning point; they may have also felt inspired by the saltires and skirl of the pipes and that’s fair enough.

But before marvelling at the number of people who were at the event, the marchers should consider the people who weren’t. What did they make of it? How many voters have these marches actually recruited to the cause and how many have they put off? Who has looked at the flags and heard the chants and the shouts and thought: these are not the people for me?