I NOTICED them when they started to appear, several years ago: little blue Saltires on packs of food in mega-supermarkets. A flag is meant to catch your eye, and catch your heart, and both happened to me.

If the first half of your adult life has been about wanting your country to gain self-confidence, and get the recognition it deserves – then yes, you notice these wee things.

In large boardrooms, at the strategic point of a supply chain, some executive had looked at the undeniable facts coming from Scottish attitudinal surveys.

And they had concluded that some positive marking of Scottish produce would increase returns – probably first to the home audience, but maybe as a marker of passionate authenticity across the islands. For the Scots civic nationalist, it was a small, everyday indicator of momentum.

A few leadership changes, whirlwind elections and thudding referenda later, and we’re now tripping over the opposite trend. And nothing escapes the Twitter activist with a working camera phone.

Our info streams are now regaled with shop-shelf pictures of “The Great British Haggis”; Arthur Bell on his whisky label, flanked by Big Ben and a red telephone box; Walkers’ shortbread imprinted with the outline of the Union Jack; Harris Tweed labels side by side with the red-white-and-blue; broccoli from Fife and carrots from Perthshire branded as “British”… All curated from a Twitter hashtag called #KeepScotlandTheBrand (how easy to organise around an issue, in these networked days).

Both Marks and Spencer and Tesco have found themselves on the wrong side of digital protest here – and have hastily course-corrected. For M&S, Scottish whisky isn’t subsumed under “Great Britain” on their website anymore. Tesco deleted a blithe tweet informing consumers that “British flags” would from now on replace “Scottish Saltires” on their food packaging – and have now committed themselves to using the Saltire flag “regularly … and whenever possible”.

Some say we live in a surveillance state – vast networks, whether state or corporate, recording our every click (and in city centres now, every facial expression). But to twist the French around, we also live in a society of “sousveillance” – where we are the ones recording the activities of authorities, watching the watchmen.

“Fake news” and “post-truth” is one aspect of this accelerated information-world. But a motivated community bringing actual examples of cultural elision to their fellow citizens is certainly another.

However, these meme wars only point to deeper problems of politics and power.

One small mitigating plea, on behalf of the mega-retailers: they are data-driven, highly consumer-sensitive operations. And post-Brexit, they will be undoubtedly picking up trends from customers, considered at the level of the UK market as a whole. Facing a Leave majority, it would be a surprise if they didn’t respond in their marketing to a rise in pro-British sentiment and anxieties (though the clodhopping nature of the response is regrettable).

The anxiety may be even more acute than this. The first straw in this wind – when Tesco removed Saltires from Scottish strawberry punnets a few months after Brexit – was reportedly provoked by English consumers, complaining that English fruit was not equally and explicitly labelled. The political philosopher Anthony Barnett has written a whole book, The Lure of Greatness, trying to inform his metropolitan peers that Brexit was as much an “Engxit” as anything else.

That’s maybe a coming trend for the marketing departments of food producers and retailers to consider. But in the meantime, and evidenced by the speedy backtracking going on, they are much more weathervanes in the blustery conditions of Brexit, than conspiring malefactors.

Certainly there will be a pressure coming from Westminster and Whitehall, seeking to unify a British “single market” and extract as much value from it as possible, as we face the likely economic carnage of leaving the EU. “Britifying” their operations – whether in terms of systems or messaging – is much more about businesses being adaptive, than ideological.

But as ever for the indy-minded, it’s what we actively do and assert – with our available powers and desired sovereignty – that’s most important in any situation.

As Jim Fairlie, head of Farmers for Yes, wrote brilliantly in these pages a few days ago, we need to defend Scotland the Brand in food and drink – because it is the result of a roaring success.

The National Food and Drink Policy for Scotland has helped propel Scottish farming, food and drink to £13.3bn a year (they have recently proposed a 2030 target of £30bn) – with strongly-identified Scottish produce in the forefront.

Yet Westminster is actively subverting this link between Scottishness and product. In recently signed EU-level trade deals with Canada and Japan, the UK did not assign a “Protected Geographical Indicator” (in other words, “made in Scotland”) to any Scottish goods.

At some point, indy activists have to get across just what a barrier to progress a Scotland trapped in the Brexit model is. Around food and drink, the tensions are all too clear.

Holyrood has exerted its powers to enhance its comestible goods with strong environmental regulation. Banning both fracking and GM foods from Scottish jurisdiction is a global-level signal that we are deadly serious about the quality of our produce. The clear cascading waters and peaty depths on the marketing literature will now have hard science behind them.

But at what point will this ram up against a freebooting Brexit model, proclaiming these islands “open for dirty business”, in a Westminster meltdown of standards and protections?

Subverting the Scottish brand in food and drink is to concretely knock economic value out of this country, let alone suppress its further growth. And before anyone starts talking about “the pettiness of arguing over symbols”, let me point you to an amazing new book by an ex-colleague of mine, Stian Westlake, called Capitalism Without Capital: the Rise of the Intangible Economy.

His general point (along with co-author Jonathan Haskel) is that modern economies underestimate the value and worth of our investment in “intangibles” - intellectual property, software, ways of doing business… and branding.

Once invested in, a quality brand can land in any economic circumstance, and immediately start to do its work – set its values, its mood and tone, its expectations on the enterprise at hand (Starbucks or Facebook or Coke are classic examples). In the jargon, this is called “scalability”.

The impact of the brand is potentially infinite, if the company’s investment in it continues to uphold its consistency and quality.

The intangible (meaning cultural and symbolic) nature of a brand, says Westlake and Haskel, means that its benefits spills over into other areas – becoming fashionable, cultish or caught up in wider trends.

The power of branding, and other intangibles, drives the authors to consider whether we are really measuring investment in our economies properly. Companies tend to think of such “soft stuff” as part of their day-to-day expenses, rather than a deep investment in value. (Maybe some way-smarter folks than I could try to assess Scottish economic worth, in terms of intangible investment and value.)

But in any case, the Scottish brand in food and drink passes any of the tests that Westlake and Haskel – or indeed, any half-awake contemporary economist – might set out for a powerful intangible asset, worth both defending and extending.

The great perplexity of Scottish stasis on the path to indy persists – though many are trying to come up with answers (the Scottish Independence Convention’s Build2 conference in Edinburgh today will be full of them, I hope and trust). But one that’s always worth a try is that indy is an opportunity for best practice, in both economics and society, in the 21st century.

And from the perspective of the power of branding in contemporary business practice, the presence (or not) of a Saltire on your punnet of Scottish strawberries is certainly no trivial matter.

Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, by Stian Westlake and Jonathan Haskel, is out now on Princeton University Press (£24.95).