Years ago a foreigner got in to a stupid quarrel with some Scottish independence supporters. He had – entirely innocently – called them “separatists” and they were raging about it.

Baffled by the response, the man, a polite academic sort, tried to explain that he had thought the dreaded s-word was less pejorative than what is seen as the more common Scottish alternative: “nationalist”.

Our political jargon can be pretty mystifying for outsiders. The overseas observer had wanted to make a banal point: that independence supporters may all be “separatists” but they are not all “nationalists”, at least not in the most widely used European sense.

Our prickliness about political vocabulary – both nationalism and separatism can, often unfairly, conjure up ugly connotations – can sometimes get in the way of us having interesting conversations.

The overseas perspective that not all Scottish separatists are nationalists has its merits, even if this language (and proposition) will make a few readers spit their coffee out. But I think this contested terminology also helps us ask another question: are all Scottish nationalists also separatists?

Historically the answer to that question has been “definitely not”. One of the great strengths of unionism, before its current intellectual and existential crisis, was its Scottish nationalism, its defence of Scottish institutions and interests within the UK.

But now? Well, today, those two tricky words nationalist and separatist, in Scotland, mean almost the same thing. Separatism, in our (frankly debased) political culture, has just become an insulting way to say nationalism. What if it was not like that?

Scotland, of course, has no modern political vehicle for non-separatist nationalism. The unionist parties, at least the electable ones, are all Scottish wings of UK-wide movements and some have drifted in to muscular British nationalism, or neo-unionism as some academics have dubbed it. Yet elsewhere there are plenty of nationalist or regionalist parties which are not separatist or which have put separatism on the back burner.

Take Coalition Avenir Québec. It has been running Quebec for three years on a platform which is far more nationalistic, for me, that anything the SNP in Scotland has proposed in recent decades. But the party is not sovereigntist, to use Canadian jargon; it does not, for now, support a separate Quebec state. Instead it stands up for the province as a nation within Canada and markets itself as the protector of the French language. It also, its critics say, throws bones to an anti-immigration chauvinistic base.

Scottish unionists sometimes take heart from the way Quebeckers have turned away from independence after two referendums: but, crucially, they have not rejected nationalism.

Spain too is full of substate nationalists who are not separatists or at least not actively campaigning for independence.

The Basque National Party or PNV is a classic example. It has spent most of the last 40 years or so in a position of power or influence in the core Basque Country, Euskadi. The current Basque premier or lendakari is Iñigo Urkullu, a PNV stalwart.

In theory, Mr Urkullu and his colleagues are playing a long game while their more radically pro-independence and more resolutely left-wing rivals EH Bildu seek faster movement towards sovereignty.

In reality, support for independence is now faltering. Last month there was a poll on the topic. Only a fifth of Basques backed a sovereign state whatever happened, though many others said they would consider doing so if the circumstances were right. Yet PNV and Bildu between them command two-thirds of votes in the Basque Country.

The unionist El País newspaper last month reported this as the “Basque paradox” of less separatism, but more nationalism.

Post conflict, Euskadi is enjoying some political stability. Contrast this with Catalonia, where a pro-independence government tried and failed to break away from Spain in 2017. (Iberia, by the way, is another part of the world where both “nacionalista” and “separatista" can be pejorative but where the very useful word ‘independentista’ thrives.)

There have long been savvier unionists who have whispered, in more hope than expectation, of an SNP which morphed in to the PNV after its indyref defeat. Now there are disaffected Yessers, the “very online” ones, who think that has already happened, that the SNP is already a non-separatist nationalist party.

Luis Castells is a professor of contemporary history at the University of the Basque Country who tried to explain the PNV’s continued electoral and polling success to El País.

“The knack of the PNV.” he told the paper, “is that they have taken the temperature of society and rounded off their more radical rhetoric and presented themselves as a guarantee of security and welfare."

There are three planks to this strategy, Mr Castells said. First, the PNV pushes the idea that it is a good manager, and this works even though, the professor added, it is often a myth. Second, he said, it appeals to “collective egoism”, that Basques enjoy better health and other public services than the rest of Spain. And finally, the academic argued, the PNV flourishes simply thanks to the idea that it is everywhere and controls everything so you have to get on well with it even if you are not a nationalist.

Sound familiar? Maybe but I don’t think the SNP is a party of post-separatist nationalists, not now.

Yet political forces can morph. This past year or so, for example, Canarian nationalists – who like the PNV have enjoyed long spells of power and influence – started making separatist noises for the first time in decades.

How would a non-separatist nationalist party in Scotland emerge? Well, the SNP could take the accelerator off independence, perhaps if Yes dips further in the polls. Or one of the unionist parties could emerge as the champion of autonomy, in the way Labour has done so in Wales. Or something entirely new could be created.

I’m not saying that a pro-Scotland party which is not primarily pro-independence is a good thing or a bad thing. But the fact we do not have one remains interesting, and worth talking about, even if it means using words like “nationalist” and “separatist” which a lot of us do not like.

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