A COLLEAGUE asked me the other day whether Scottish independence was inevitable and the answer has to be “no” doesn’t it? The history of independence movements around the world shows us that support can rise and then fall. The SNP supporters who are getting a wee bit over-excited about the polls should also ask themselves this: how enduring will opinions be when they’re formed in the chill of a crisis in which people are getting ill and we’re being asked to wear masks over our faces?

Having said that, it does feel like something has been shifting a little in recent weeks and that the straight line of the graph has gone into a bit of a curve, although what’s really interesting is that it’s not all one way. Support for independence does appear to have ticked up, but the change in Nicola Sturgeon, in public at least, has also been interesting, partly because not all of her supporters are entirely happy about it.

The change was clear right from the beginning of the crisis. Before coronavirus, the First Minister was still talking about an independence referendum this year, even though no one believed it any more. But, to her credit, she stopped talking about it and said her focus was on the health crisis instead. She said something similar to Andrew Marr on Sunday, which, as Marr pointed out, has led to the weird situation of everyone talking about independence more than the leader of the SNP.

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But behind the scenes, Ms Sturgeon’s political brain is still ticking away, and her calculation is that by not talking about independence she actually increases support for it. In other words, banging on about independence all the time can turn people off, whereas handling a crisis competently – but more importantly giving the impression you’re handling it competently – can increase support. Ms Sturgeon refers to the strategy as “show not tell” and let’s face it: it’s working to some extent.

The question is whether it will hold, and the signs are not all good. On her right flank, some critics seem to have a go at the First Minister whatever happens and appear to think she should have followed the UK strategy word-for-word. Meanwhile, on the left flank some of her own supporters think her strategy on independence is much too slow and comfortable for a supposedly radical movement. They ache and agitate for something more dramatic.

As for Nicola Sturgeon herself, she says she now takes a different view of the situation and let’s take her word on it for now. Talking to Alastair Campbell in The New European, she said she had a sense she would not be coming out of the crisis the same as she went into it. “It is probably lowering my tolerance to some of the nonsense of politics,” she said. “I know how important rigorous debate is, but a lot of modern politics is not about that, it’s just about chucking mud at each other and forcing yourself to believe the worst of your opponents.”

Ms Sturgeon admitted that the change might not last and that there was a chance she might go back to her old ways once the crisis is over – we all might. But I suspect she’s not alone in her re-assessment of how the arguments over independence have been framed. The last six aggressive and angry years have been exhausting and the First Minister’s approach encouraged it. The hope now – and I accept it may be a vain hope – is that her more recent tone and behaviour can be a model for the future.

A little look back at the past might also help. The 45th anniversary of the 1975 European referendum has just been and gone and a look at the campaigns is enlightening. The question was “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community?” and both sides resorted to apocalyptic language. The In campaign warned of food shortages if we came out of the common market, while the Out campaign warned that British wealth would “bleed away” within the market and that the UK would be forced to “merge” with France and become a single state.

Forty-five years on, we can now see those warnings for what they were: hysterical rubbish, but there were more reasonable voices among the voters. For example, on referendum day itself, the comic writer Michael Palin was still wrestling with the options in his diary: stay in Europe and, in his words, keep up with the pace of material progress in France and Germany, or break from Europe and become an independent trader. But it’s what Palin said next that makes most sense: “Neither decision involves the downfall of our nation. Once there is a decision it will all be absorbed into the system and the country will carry on working (or not working) as it always did.”

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That still makes a lot of sense and could work as a blueprint for how we should all think in referendums to come, including any referendum on Scottish independence. The last referendum in 2014 was nasty, with lots of the mud-slinging Nicola Sturgeon referred to (much of it thrown by her), but a big part of the problem was the extreme positions. The No side said that if Scotland was independent, all our money would blow up and alien crabs would suck our brains out through our eyeballs, while the Yes side said we’d all be sitting by the pool in 24/7 sunshine counting our piles of self-generating cash. Not quite. But not far off.

The point is we need to be resistant to that kind of hysteria in future. There are concerns about debt in an independent Scotland and how the border would work, but the reality is Scotland would not have independence in any total sense: our ability to be autonomous would be limited just as it is for every other nation. In other words: the country will largely carry on working (or not working) as it always did.

I accept some nationalists will not like that idea – they’re still in love with 24/7 sunshine. But for some unionists and centrists, perhaps it could form the basis of a coping mechanism. As I said to my colleague, independence is not inevitable. But perhaps, if there’s a little less mud and a little less hysteria, some of those who oppose independence might just start getting their head round the idea.

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.