IT’S always worth listening closely to the words of Scotland’s greatest historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine. At the weekend he gave my colleague Neil Mackay a vivid picture of the current state of the Union – and why it’s in deep trouble in the wake of Boris Johnson and Brexit.

But between the lines, I think Sir Tom was also delivering a quiet warning to ardent Scottish nationalists who think independence is just a matter of time. It’s not a done deal.

With the collapse of the old unionist parties, Scottish identity is undoubtedly on the march. But as he points out: we’ve been here before in the last 300 years, and the Union has endured.

As it evolved in the 18th Ccentury, after the abortive Jacobite Risings, the UK gave considerable space for the expression of Scottish identity – initially in the form of the Kirk, law and education and latterly as a key component of “Great Britain”. As Sir Tom points out, Scotland was never “annexed” by conquest, like Wales or Ireland. Scots did not feel like a subject people in the Union, though they often found plenty to complain about.

The Union was not about extinguishing or subsuming the Scottish nation – it was really about enriching it. Scotland was offered a partnership in the exploitation of the colonies and free trade, which it seized with enthusiasm. Not only did Scots not feel oppressed, they did a bit of oppressing on their own account in the colonies. Scots effectively ran the Empire while the English elites collected most of the profits. The Union was massively popular in Scotland, especially in the 19th Century.

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What this means, I think, is that the economic case for independence has always assumed much greater significance here than identity. When Ireland finally became an independent republic in 1948, the people celebrating in Dublin streets weren’t worrying about what currency they’d use. Similarly, when the Baltic states won independence from the ruins of the Soviet Empire there was little debate about economics. No one in Lithuania sang songs about equalisation formulae.

Independence movements in Slovakia and Slovenia weren’t bothered about pension entitlements. They were reviving national cultures that had been crushed by successive empires for nearly 200 years. This partly explains a country like Slovakia’s enthusiasm for the European Union. Brussels guaranteed its national and cultural autonomy. EU membership secured borders, even as Slovakia’s economy was arguably annexed by Germany.

Scotland was never in this situation. Its national border was never in doubt; its culture never erased. Indeed, most Scots were happy with their relatively privileged place in the British Empire. Scottish identity became part and parcel of the Union – especially on the battlefield, where Scots thrived. The Victorian elites fell in love with the whole romance of Scotland – its mountains, its rugged individualism, its martial culture embodied in the Scottish regiments. This was summed up by the kilt, a garment famously designed by a London tailor which became the defining sartorial expression of Scottishness.

As recently as the 1950s, Scots voted overwhelmingly Tory/Unionist. Gradually, of course, in the later 20th century, the economic underpinnings of the Union crumbled. The Empire is gone now, along with Scotland’s heavy industry. Scots began to reassess their place in the UK – especially after the North Sea oil bonanza and Thatcherism. But initially at least, they were seeking a new relationship with, not the extinction of, the UK

In the 1990s, Scots restored a large degree of political autonomy, in the shape of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland is restoring by degrees economic autonomy. But so far this has remained within the context of the UK. It is not at all clear that they are even now ready to give it up.

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The 2014 referendum offered independence without tears. In fact it wasn’t really independence, in my view, but a form of confederalism. Scotland would have retained the pound, and no one needed to worry about a hard border because it was assumed Scotland and England would remain within the EU single market. That’s all changed since Brexit.

Independence now means separation from the Union, not a renegotiation of it. The SNP hasn’t begun to address this radical discontinuity.

As the anger over Brexit fades, and the Northern Ireland protocol reminds Scots just how troublesome borders can be, the SNP needs to remake the case for independence from the ground up. The Scottish Government needs an economic prospectus more compelling than anything the Union can offer. Jeering at Boris Johnson and complaining about English tourists is not enough.

Scots loathing of Mr Johnson is almost palpable right now. But they will eventually realise that he is not Thatcher reincarnate

Scots loathing of Mr Johnson is almost palpable right now. But they will eventually realise that he is not Thatcher reincarnate

My only real disagreement with Sir Tom is on his suggestion that Mr Johnson is “more right wing than Margaret Thatcher”. That is hard to justify. She was a free market ideologue and would never have agreed to the expansion of the state that Boris Johnson has embarked upon. Mr Johnson is an interventionist. Brexit aside, he’s more like Michael Heseltine than “that bloody woman” as Mrs Thatcher was often called on the doorsteps. Scots loathing of Mr Johnson is almost palpable right now. But they will eventually realise that he is not Thatcher reincarnate.

Sir Tom wisely points out that the SNP’s rise has been very recent and was not inevitable. As recently as 2003, the SNP was going backwards under the leadership of John Swinney. Its extraordinary rise was largely down to Alex Salmond after his return in 2004. He delivered the narrow SNP victory of 2007, the landslide of 2011 and the 2014 referendum. There is no one in the SNP now possessing that kind of populist genius.

Mr Salmond was greatly assisted by the mistakes made by Labour, who had delivered devolution only to turn Holyrood into a repository of mediocrity. Nor did Scots warm to Tony Blair who became, in his time, almost as unpopular as Boris Johnson is today.

Scots voted massively for the SNP in the tsunami of 2015 – but this wasn’t a vote for independence. They’d just voted No the previous year. It was rather a clamorous reaffirmation of Scottish identity within the Union.

Sir Tom caused a minor sensation in 2014 when he declared that he was voting Yes. But would he again? He didn’t say.

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