‘TO see oursels as ithers see us!” – it is not only the punchline of an amusingly telling satire by Rabbie Burns. It was also identified by George Davie, guardian of the Scottish intellectual tradition in the 20th century, as showing how deeply the Enlightenment had in its time penetrated the minds of thinking Scots, rich and poor, high and low.

What we are talking about is the Common Sense philosophy, in particular the concept of the “impartial spectator”, as Adam Smith called it. It means a fictive figure through which we can help ourselves to form our moral judgments, if we have ceased to believe – as is true of most of us – that they are to be found in the Bible.

Davie traced the tradition right from Burns and Smith to Hugh MacDiarmid. Maybe through the last it filters down to the modern nationalist movement, though indeed you would have to look hard for it nowadays.

These thoughts came to me while I was reading in The Sunday National some excerpts from the remarkable book The Levelling, by Michael O’Sullivan, Irish financier and academic. His subtitle is: “What’s next after globalisation?” This offers the clue to his argument that the appearance of Trump and Brexit shows the long era of economic liberalisation since 1945 is coming to an end, so we need to think about what may follow. O’Sullivan does not claim any monopoly of wisdom, but he certainly has a lot of original and striking ideas.

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O’Sullivan is also the (to my knowledge) only writer to have specified Scotland as one of the keys to this possible new global order. It gives me no pleasure to say so, but up to now Scotland has been more or less totally ignored by the pundits who ponder the future of the planet, as much as by the far greater majority who spend not a moment bothering about it.

That was why in 2014 Tory prime minister David Cameron could bamboozle us so outrageously when he hired Jose Manuel Barroso, Portuguese president of the EU Commission, to state publicly that “it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to become a member state. This contradicted an express provision of the EU’s founding document, the Treaty of Rome (1956), but Barroso insinuated it might be overturned, just like that, by unilateral objections from Spain. In fact, Spain has no such objections, it has since turned out. But by the time of indyref1 the damage had already been done at the prompting of that oily and obsequious legman from Lisbon.

The National: European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was used to tell Scots it would be 'extremely difficult' for an independent Scotland to join the EU – and that claim received too little scrutinyEuropean Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was used to tell Scots it would be 'extremely difficult' for an independent Scotland to join the EU – and that claim received too little scrutiny

Yet at a critical juncture of intellectual challenge nobody in the rest of Europe stepped up to defend any alternative point of view more favourable to Scotland. I remember a conversation with some Germans who said that, after it had taken their own country so long to get reunited, they really could not understand, let alone agree with, those who wanted to break up another country.

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What a change five years has made, three of them obsessed by Brexit. We are still hardly any nearer a settlement with our European neighbours. On the contrary, we elect MEPs to go over and insult them. All the other nations are completely peeved off with the Brits. Some have noticed, and have begun to contemplate not without pleasure, how this may lead to the break-up of the UK. Spain, so far from blocking that, at last sees some revenge for Gibraltar in view. I have no doubt the French Foreign Ministry preserves files on this policy first written in the time of Napoleon. And the Germans, too, are rediscovering a love of small nations, one or two of them at least.

So how now do “ithers see us”?

I think they do start to see Scotland in a different light from even only five years ago. And O’Sullivan’s book could be among the first extensive statements of this transforming perspective.

It would fit in with his thesis that small countries will grow more important in a global system becoming “multipolar”. Sure, it will rest on three mighty economies: China, the most centralised; the EU, open but regulated; the US, libertarian but assertive. But from experience, we know big countries find trouble in acting coherently because they contain so many competing interests, and the competition among these may not be clean. In the interstices of this global system there will always be room for small countries to exploit their scope for political, economic and social cohesion, and so extend their freedom of action, provided they play their cards right.

A good example in the recent past has been the Irish Republic, despite its small size carving out a respected place in the international order as it set itself apart from a once dominant but irreversibly declining neighbour, the UK.

A good example in the near future might be Scotland, undergoing the same process in relation to post-Brexit Britain. O’Sullivan sees all three nations as being currently subjected to a “stress test”, focused on the fate of Northern Ireland though much wider in its implications. “Brexit has been nasty, negative and chaotic,” he says, yet we should not lose sight of an alternative which might be “hopeful, constructive and detailed in its prescriptions”.

Scotland has most to gain. It “has not yet had a chance to build the policy capability to make the most of its brand as a country and of its access to markets. Indeed, until recent decades, the absence of very distinctive Scotland-facing policies from London has been a real constraint on Scotland. Most notable has been the absence of a policy response to the (global) process of deindustrialisation that Scotland experienced starting in the 1980s.”

In other words, we still live in the shadow of the fallen cooling towers of Ravenscraig. It is time to cast off the memory of the industrial past, glorious though it had been, and face the realities of the present and the future.

O’Sullivan does not quite get round to this, but let me step in and say that national independence is the obvious way forward. UK policy in Scotland has been reduced to nothing except keeping us in the Union. Given that, our own government’s policy is largely just indignant reaction. This was why the argument during indyref1 became so constrained to the question of currency, a battleground chosen in London yet not, in the end, of supreme importance to Scotland.

What is of supreme importance is the real economy, our goods and services and how well we produce them. In O’Sullivan’s formulation, we must be “focused on the future investments that need … to be made so that an independent Scotland could act to position itself for success in the global economy.” A shame that, at such a turning point, we have a government indifferent or even hostile to capitalism, and more intent on making us politically correct than globally successful. Here is the light in which they wish that “ithers see us”. It’s the wrong choice, and risks throwing away the nation’s historic opportunity.