TO WRITE about Scotland’s constitutional politics is to open oneself up for opprobrium. On a good day, that will just be from one side, although more often than not censure is in duplicate.

Inasmuch as truth is relevant in the puerility of Scottish constitutional debate, I feel compelled to begin with my view on the matter.

I am not exercised by constitutional politics. Nationality, for me, evokes contentedness, at best, rather than pride. I can’t get excited about which flags fly on buildings, what colour my passport is, or whether a copy of The Gruffalo is available in Scots. Indeed, I find the all-too-prevalent Scottish and British exceptionalism cringeworthy and insular, especially in those areas where we claim world-leading status when all the sensible evidence points to the contrary.

Although I would have been prepared to vote Yes, I voted No in 2014 based solely on my view that Scotland’s inherited fiscal deficit combined with the leftism of a new, ideologised nation would leave me and my family poorer for a significant period of time.

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The 2014 campaign made me feel that a Yes vote would be an act of personal self-harm; a virtue signalling affirmation of non-Englishness. The stuff of a second Scottish Enlightenment it was not.

That said, polling trends are now clear enough to be sure that, slowly but most definitely surely, the country is moving towards independence. From the 55:45 position of 2014, the No vote has gradually declined. Even if we strip out polling during the pandemic, which may fairly be seen to be skewed by a seismic current event, numbers for No now normally tend to be in the low rather than the mid-fifties.

Since the peak of coronavirus passed, Yes has begun to build what may be seen as a psephologically consistent lead. This particular set of warning signs for unionists (for there have been many over the years) were there in the polling conducted by Ipsos MORI for the BBC in May, in which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was given a net approval rating of 74% for her handling of the pandemic. Only one-in-eight people thought she was doing badly.

That means, plainly, that a large number of died-in-the-wool unionists thought that Ms Sturgeon was doing a good job. As soon as I saw that poll I wondered whether unionist leaders north and south, who have long hitched their wagon to the negative perceptions of Ms Sturgeon that they claim to hear on the famous doorsteps, would understand the potential implications of their people offering her their approval, even during a crisis.

The question in my head, now, is this: have the unionists given up, or are they just asleep at the wheel?

To be sure, positives for nationalists are plentiful. Simple demographics play their part; bluntly, young people are more likely to be ideological nationalists, and unionists are more likely to die. Secondly, without being pejorative about Boris Johnson, on whom the jury remains out, the very presence in Downing Street of a figure largely unpopular in Scotland also helps the case, especially when he and his party’s demise still seems distant. And, thirdly, the uncertainty ushered in by Brexit, in a nation which did not vote for it, is another push factor for soft unionist Remainers.

However it would also be a mistake to think that this most recent trend towards nationalism is particularly sticky. Ms Sturgeon’s communications around coronavirus has been as outstanding as it must have been exhausting, but her strategy has so far been a near carbon-copy of Mr Johnson’s.

During a crisis, opinions are transient and often frankly hysterical. So all should not be lost for unionists. And, yet, their prospects look bleak. Bleak not because of the last two months, or even the last two years, but as a result of decades of poor strategy, guided by emotional anti-nationalism rather than calm, clinical calculation.

One word sums up British unionism: “reactive”. The Smith Commission was a reaction to the independence referendum result. The Calman Commission was a reaction to the SNP winning in 2007. Devolution itself was a reaction to nationalist strength.

Unionism is forever chasing the curve of Scottish public opinion. It is never ahead of it. It is never proactive. If it wants to save itself, it now needs to be. If unionists think they can just say no to indyref 2 and eventually it will all go away, they’ve not been paying attention.

Unionism has some strong fundamentals in its favour. Firstly, it may well be the case that at any future independence referendum voter fatigue plays a significant role. Scots have, in six years, been asked to decide upon their future in the UK and their future in the EU, have faced three general elections and a Scottish election, with another around the corner, not to mention enduring the coronavirus crisis, during which their job has a good chance of having been saved by a UK Chancellor. They might simply think “enough is enough”.

That is, perhaps, rather a depressing reason to vote No. But there are more uplifting ones. The transfer of such large volumes of No voters to Yes over recent years means that, by definition, a large proportion of the vote is soft. It can go back under the right conditions.

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Those right conditions, I think, inevitably involve the proactive creation of a New Unionism, discussed in some quarters but not so far ostensibly embraced by anyone with their hands on the levers of power.

This New Unionism would read the changing mood, not just in Scotland but also in Northern Ireland and even to a degree in Wales, and try to get ahead of it. It would almost certainly move beyond the immature unionist debate which presumes power to be binary, either shifting from Westminster to Holyrood or vice versa, either a strong Scotland or a strong Britain, and instead enhance the role of both parliaments and governments through a structure built to last for decades, rather than one built to last until the next time the SNP does well at an election.

When you ask two unionists how to defeat nationalism you get five different answers. Unless they settle on a New Unionism in short order, they will probably still be arguing with each other when the independence train leaves the station.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters