The Scottish National Party has, curiously, long had an uncomfortable relationship with its own nationalism.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, for example, the lingering memory of the Second World War and its extremist nationalisms caused problems for a party desperately trying to break Britain’s two-party duopoly, while in the early 1990s the negative associations of Balkan nationalism caused a similar problem.

So the SNP badly needed some way of distinguishing its more moderate nationalism from the nastier variety. Fortuitously, in 1993 the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff produced a television series and book called “Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism”.

A result of his travels in Eastern Europe, this drew a distinction between “ethnic” and “civic” nationalisms, the latter being that which “envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared act of political practices and values”. It seems some in the SNP grabbed hold of this, for Scottish political columnists started referring to the party’s “civic nationalism” at around the same time, and it’s been a fixture of Scottish political discourse ever since.

It came up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week, as did the long-standing angst about the word “nationalism”. In conversation with the Turkish writer Elif ?afak, the First Minister said if she could “turn the clock back” to the founding of the SNP she would “call it something other than the Scottish National Party” (20 years ago Alex Salmond suggested the “Scottish Independence Party”).

Sturgeon’s comments were in response to ?afak's (understandable) scepticism that nationalism could ever be truly “benevolent”. Scottish nationalism, Sturgeon added, “could not be further removed from some of what you would recognise as nationalism in other parts of the world”. The First Minister then offered the standard definition of “civic” nationalism, that it “doesn’t matter where you come from” and that if “you feel you have a stake in the country, you are Scottish”.

A couple of things about this struck me. First, the middle word in the SNP’s name is “National” rather than “Nationalist” (although some Unionists often deliberately get this wrong), while it raised an obvious question about those who don’t feel they have a “stake” in the country; there is, for example, an identifiable group of diehard Unionists who feel that way. Are they therefore less Scottish, or not Scottish at all? Now, I’m sure Sturgeon didn’t mean to imply that, but it jarred nevertheless.

The broader context to this exchange was the rise of “white nationalism” in the United States. Not only did the excitable wing of the Yes movement get upset about the BBC using this term, but it once again highlighted its negative connotations. Now, even critics of nationalism would accept that it exists on a spectrum: at one end is what’s happening in Charlottesville, and at the other is the SNP, neatly illustrated by Ms Sturgeon’s presence at Saturday’s Glasgow Pride march.

But even the relatively benign variety is still nationalism, and that remains problematic even when shorn of racial or other sorts of prejudice. As Michael Ignatieff also noted, all forms of nationalism “vest political sovereignty in the ‘the people’”, a belief that it is the nation “which provides them with their primary form of belonging”. That view is obviously contestable, for it’s not clear why nationhood should be more important than other aspects of human identity like class or religion.

Nevertheless, a lot of independence supporters appear uncomfortable even with “civic nationalism”, indeed a fascinating feature of referendum-era discourse was the “I’m not a nationalist” qualification. This group, generally ex-Labour voters, protested that their support for independence rested upon a belief in self-determination or self-government, as did the First Minister late last week.

On Saturday lawyer Mike Dailly, an even more recent convert, Tweeted that “you can support Scottish independence and not be a ‘nationalist’”, because independence is simply “100% devolution”, while left-wing activist Cat Boyd recently argued that Scotland needed to be independent due to what she called the “complete collapse of New Labour’s devolution project”.

That’s one way of looking at it, but the trouble is that the “civic” aspect of Scottish nationalism rests upon an historically ethnic definition of Scotland, therefore disentangling the two is almost impossible. Debate independence with anyone and it always comes back to the same point. If the aim is “social justice”, as many Yessers claim, then why not for the whole of the UK rather than just one part of it? “Because,” comes the inevitable response, “Scotland is a nation”.

Others try to move beyond this, though not wholly successfully. In his Book Festival lecture, “Scotland, Your Scotland”, novelist Andrew O’Hagan made a “post-nationalist” argument, speaking about Scotland moving beyond “old constitutional abstractions” and the “fetters of geography”. That’s all well and good, but in order to get there, Scotland would first have to secede from the UK, something O’Hagan now supports.

And O’Hagan’s rationale for that secession rested upon hoary old clichés about Scottish exceptionalism, that the “Scottish people” rage for “fairness and equality”, love the European Union and hate right-wing Tories. My favourite bit was when he acknowledged that Scotland had “problems galore”, but they were at least “honest ones”, unlike all those dishonest problems south of the Border.

But reconciling the claim that anyone can become “Scottish” by assimilation while also asserting the idea that Scotland is somehow “different” is quite difficult, for otherwise you believe that non-Scots mystically acquire an egalitarian mind-set upon crossing the Border, rather like the Queen switching from Anglican to Presbyterian as the Royal train chugs past Berwick-upon-Tweed.

O’Hagan’s lecture referenced George Orwell, and indeed his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism” remains a prescient primer for modern Scottish nationalism. “All nationalists”, he observed, “have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.” Thus, Scottish Nationalists will condemn in Brexiters what they can’t see in themselves, and vice-versa.

And actions, added Orwell, “are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them”, a handy explanation for the phenomenon by which an independence supporter can’t possibly be sexist or homophobic, but a Unionist can.

As Elif ?afak told the First Minister last week, “every nationalistic ideology teaches us tribalism”, something else illustrated by contemporary Scottish politics. And like it or not, nationalism cannot be wished away or masked by a change of name.