NOSTALGIA is a feeling that lingers inside you, like a cloud of smoke you can’t dispel. It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: what do you feel nostalgic about?

Spontaneously, my own response is: radical bookshops. As a Glasgow University student in the 80s, I used to drift between about six of them, studding the town centre and the West End.

Pre-internet, the whole, wide, struggling world poured into these places, where the booksellers sat like wispy-bearded magi. When I was music-touring, I even established an informal map of them: they turned up in most cities and towns we played in. My oases of calm and depth, amidst the relentless promo.

Psychologists say that we are most nostalgic about the experiences that we most cherish. So there’s no doubt, in the cold Thatcherite climate of my musical youth, that I cherished these doughty alternative spaces.

The magnificence of Manchester’s Frontline, or London’s Compendium … all gone, shut down, what a shame … And there it goes again – the nostalgic impulse.

The problem with nostalgia is not just that it romantically reconstructs the past. It also wilfully misrecognises the present.

Why am I pining about these scattered, embattled oases of thought? All of this content and more can squirt into my new smartphone – e-books, papers, videos, podcasts, chatrooms – at any bus stop or coffee shop in the land (or indeed, just about any land).

Right here, right now, is in fact the golden age of radical publishing and discussion. Not leaky, fusty, barely populated backrooms, gleaming fitfully in the Tory gloom.

So we’ve quite a few reasons to be suspicious of nostalgia. The word originally referred to what was regarded as a medical condition – soldiers incapacitated by mournful feelings about their homeland, far away.

There’s no doubt an edge of this – probably pitying – in Michel Barnier’s latest use of the term (he has form). The EU’s lead negotiator was being interviewed this week in the New York Review of Books.

“Looking at the causes of Brexit, we also find typically British reasons,” purred Barnier. “The hope for a return to a powerful global Britain, nostalgia for the past – nostalgia serves no purpose in politics.”

The first part of Barnier’s rapier-swish would seem, initially, to cut real flesh. Think of the general Churchillania around us; of Brexit Party supporters likening May’s Withdrawal Agreement to a “surrender treaty after a war”; or the vainglory of memes like “Global Britain” and “Empire 2.0”.

Or take the important difference between “Brexiteer” and “Brexiter” – the former explicitly referring to the “Buccaneers” and “Privateers” of Drake’s Elizabethan era.

The title of Anthony Barnett’s book on Brexit, The Lure of Greatness, really captures the essence of this nostalgia. But it also refutes Barnier’s second point about nostalgia “serving no purpose in politics”.

Perhaps by “politics”, Barnier means the endless commensuration of national interests that he imagines the European Union to be.

“The EU is a way to create more sovereignty and more power in those fields where our nations have lost power”, he continues in the NYRB. “Nobody prevents Polish people from speaking Polish, French people from speaking French – both national cultures continue to develop. We have to see the world as it is, not as it was. The fact that we speak with one voice on issues of trade or competition makes us a global actor. Otherwise, Europe would turn into a museum.”

Barnier would doubtless agree with my dispelling of my own nostalgia. “Of course you should be embracing digitality, mon ami,

instead of mourning piles of pamphlets!”

But will Brexit turn Britain into a museum? Barnett’s point – amplifying Tom Nairn’s argument from 40 years ago – is that the British state has long had a museum-like aspect to it.

England had its national revolution early – in 1688 – but it happened on particular terms: the merchant class doing a deal with the aristocracy to manage the peasantry (and later the proletariat). This was a full century before the European national bourgeoisie started to assert their voice. But they united with the proles to topple the aristocratic orders, rather than ally with them.

Barnett and Nairn both say this constitutional legacy, indeed primacy – the conceit of being “God’s first-born” modern nation – is the underground engine that drives much of the surface display of Westminster politics.

Witness Henry VIII clauses, or struggles between the parliament and an executive secured by the crown, or the puzzling charisma of Rees-Mogg and Johnson, or the seemingly inextinguishable enchantments of monarchy, never mind those entrenched “Lords” themselves.

Nobody said nostalgia was baseless, sheer fiction. And it may well be that the remarkable endurance of the Brexit spirit has some roots in the founding upper-class/middle-class alliance of the Glorious Revolution.

How else does an elite-educated, ex-merchant banker get to be a militial tribune of “democracy” and the people? What is the elemental sense of English-expressed-as-British exceptionalism which makes this charlatan credible?

Is Scottish constitutional politics, especially in its indy mode, nostalgic in the same way? The answer is a subtle one.

Political scientists like to make a distinction between “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgia. The former harbours feelings about restoring previous glory years, going “back to a future” where the negative elements have been edited out.

That’s certainly Brexit, but it’s also Erdogan’s dreams of an Ottoman Empire 2.0, or Putin’s Mother Russia, or of course Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again).

“Reflective” nostalgia is more gripped by melancholia and poignancy. It’s aware that things have been lost, but other things have been gained, and that it’s meaningful and important to know the difference.

In an excellent recent paper for the Journal of Scottish Thought, Robert Wirth notes how many of the songs regularly performed at indy rallies partake of this mournful structure of feeling. Caledonia, Freedom Come a’ Ye, Cap In Hand, Flower of Scotland (the last being both restorative and reflective).

Reflective nostalgia can also be playful and humorous. At one end is the Tartan Army’s Jimmy Hat, and at the other is plaid-wreathed Bikers for Yes. But in general, this is the fun-driven, carnivalesque use of Scots symbols at All Under One Banner marches (which is often misrecognised by many commentators as “restorative”

in nature).

Yet Wirth’s main point is that, at least when studying the cultural archive up till 2014 (and arguably to the present), what was notable about the indy campaign was the pointed absence of nostalgic content.

This was perhaps less so on the No side, with its invocations of the “pooling and sharing” of 1945.

But it was certainly on the Yes side. “Scotland’s Future” was laid out in super-modernist font, delivering a torrent of social-democratic policies.

And certainly from Sturgeon’s side of the stage, we only heard (and hear) an abstract, universalist language of modernity and progress, anti-ethnic and fully inclusive.

This is a time when the Brexit discourse easily slides into nostalgia for less diverse societies. So we should count ourselves lucky in Scotland that the groundwork towards an open identity was laid down in the indy movement (and let’s hope the exemplars hold).

Reflective nostalgia would seem to be the best option for Scotland going forward. As I wrote a few weeks ago, when you find out that beloved national drinks had happy Indian sandboys cavorting in their logo at the height of empire, it would be ridiculous to adopt any other approach to our past.

It’s yet another faculty of “normal” nationhood that we might hope our southern brothers and sisters might sit down to mutually explore with us – when the fever subsides, and the break-up heals over.