ITis natural enough, at the New Year, that our thoughts should turn to time and the passage of time, to reflect on the past and where it has brought us, the times we now live in, and what the future may bring.

As befits the nation which astutely managed to manufacture a near-monopoly on the New Year and its festivities (even given the depressing discovery in a poll the other day that 74% or people in Britain will mime the words to Auld Lang Syne, and have no notion what they mean), the Scots are particularly given to such musings. This year we have more reason than usual to do so.

Time has been one of the great themes of modernism in art for more than a century, whether in the high-minded novels of Marcel Proust and Anthony Powell, the more widely-read fantasies of H G Wells and Mark Twain or, to drag the examples down to the lowest possible denominator, the Terminator movies and Jean-Claude van Damme in Timecop.

But it is also, thanks to the theories of Albert Einstein, one of the great puzzles of science, as we were reminded last year by the physicists at CERN, who conducted an experiment which seemed to suggest that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light – with deleterious consequences for our understanding of cause and effect.

Most Scots may not worry much about attoseconds of the Planck time, but we have occasion to think about what we want to do about measuring hours. There is currently a debate at Westminister about whether the United Kingdom should adopt double daylight saving time (or Central European Time, if you prefer) which those who remember the early 1970s – when we had a shot at doing it before – may view as, literally, a gloomy prospect.

Or perhaps Holyrood will choose to emphasise Scotland's difference from the rest of the United Kingdom – I suppose it is conceivable that there may be a few MSPs who would like to do that, for some reason or another – and stick us in a different time zone from England.

We could follow the example of the Samoans, who dropped a whole day last week, shifting themselves to the other side of the International Date Line, and putting them in a better trading position, chronologically speaking. I suspect, however, that the introduction of a Scando-Scottish time zone is beyond the ambitions and ingenuity, even of the First Minister.

Since it's a leap year, we'll get an extra day, of course, unless the Mayans were right, in which case the world will come to an abrupt end and time will stop on December 21 this year, when their "Long Count" calendar comes to the end of its 5126-year span.

It's always foolhardy for a newspaper columnist to make a prediction, but I think I'll assume that that won't happen by adopting the logic of Pascal's wager, which is that there will be no way of hauling me up on it if I turn out to be wrong.

More dangerously, I'll stick my neck out on a question of timing and the mood of the times, rather than time itself. I predict that by the end of 2012 there will still have been no referendum conducted on Scottish independence.

The Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, used his New Year message (is the idea that there should be such a thing not ludicrously self-important?) to press the Scottish Government for details. He's right to do so, both from the point of view of the political strategy of the Unionist parties, which is to get the referendum held as soon as possible, while the answer is still likely to be "No", and in the strict constitutional sense that it's in both Westminster and Holyrood's interests to get the wording of the question and the legalistic niceties of whether the vote is binding tidied up beyond dispute, so that we can all know what we're voting on.

But the Nationalists are quite right to point out that, though important, much of this is hair-splitting. It is politically impossible to imagine that a decisive vote for full independence would not lead to just that, or to contest the right of the Scottish people to conduct such a vote, even if it is technically a reserved power and regarded as merely "consultative".

Nor have I any real quarrel with Alex Salmond's right, as First Minister, to choose the moment at which he calls the referendum. This is, of course, a nakedly political judgment: Nationalists want delay as much as Unionists want the process speeded up, each side because it is trying to maximise its chances.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the spokesman for Bruce Crawford, Cabinet Secretary for Government Strategy, was downright misleading when he said: "We will stick to the pledge we made in the election campaign to hold a referendum in the second half of this five-year parliamentary term."

Nothing of the sort was said about timing before the election, and SNP politicians have been repeating this rewriting of history since their triumph, in the hope that we will all begin to believe it. Even so, I don't, as I say, at all challenge Mr Salmond's moral and political right to choose the timing.

The trickiest question facing Unionists this year ought to be to press the Nationalists on the nature of the question, rather than worrying too much about when we get it. The SNP may have a mandate to adjust the timing of the poll for their own advantage, but it is much less clear that they have the right to shift the terms of what voters are getting to choose between. Although the likelihood is that most Scots want some form of devo-max or independence lite, what the Nationalists actually have a mandate on is their promise to deliver a vote on independence proper versus the Union, and not a range of possibilities where the details are vague. By all means, let them choose their moment. But let's have that choice, even if we've got to take our time getting to it.