SAY what you will about Jim Sillars. I’ve said plenty before. But the old Gorgon of Govan has always had a rare turn of phrase.

In a column written in January six years ago, he turned the following cracker: “On 18th September 2014, between the hours of 7am and 10pm, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people.” You can see why the line resonated with supporters of independence at the time. It was dramatic. It had gravity. But in this line’s second life after the 2014 result – on social media memes and in newspaper columns – it should really be read much more ambivalently.

If we find ourselves living outside those 15 hours of enfranchisement, if we aren’t exercising that sovereign choice, where are we now? Less clearly remembered – and much less often quoted – is the more ominous second sentence Sillars buttonholed this apparently inspirational thought with. Of this sovereignty, he said, the Scottish people will “have to decide whether to keep it, or give it away to where their minority status makes them permanently powerless and vulnerable”. I don’t know about you, but for me this January has felt like a series of object lessons in the truth of Sillars’s second sentence.

Since September 2014, politics has seemed in constant churn. One implication of this is that the second part of Sillars’s prophecy hasn’t really hit many independence supporters until now. Some of this is for good reasons of political mathematics. 2015 saw the return of a majority Tory government under David Cameron, but for the year and a bit his divided administration held office, in policy terms, it felt like continuity coalition, distracted by internal Tory debates about the EU referendum which would soon destroy Cameron’s political career.

After 2016, it became apparent that Scotland’s distinctive answer to the question “should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” meant bugger all. Despite her warm words on taking office, Theresa May had no intention of striking for the kind of Brexit deal which Scottish Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or the SNP could live with. But the practical and emotional reckoning with what that means felt infinitely delayed in the wrangling years which followed.

May inherited her predecessor’s majority of 12 seats, but had squandered that within 12 months. Until last December’s General Election, hers was a government paralysed by indecision inside the Tory Party, and hamstrung by the lack of a majority in the Commons without the backing of their fair-weather friends in the DUP. What we didn’t experience – or at least not

consistently during this period – was the sense of powerless and vulnerability Sillars alluded to in his 2014 column. Delayed, deferred, only temporarily avoided – 2020 is the year this feeling hit home.

Before May’s leadership fully oxidised, Scottish Tories briefed the press that change was in the air and the Nats wouldn’t know what hit ‘em under the new dispensation. Unlike her custard-coloured predecessor, who they judged had been excessively indulgent and polite towards the SNP, they bragged their mark-two Iron Lady “didn’t fear the Nats” and was prepared to lay down the law to the restless natives rather than pandering to their complaints, like playdough Cameron.

This “fearlessness” principally manifested in repeating “now is not the time” on loop and being rude to Ian Blackford at PMQs. But it is worth remembering that May’s decision to refuse to recognise the political mandate for a second independence referendum was untested and potentially risky at the time. How would the Scottish people react? The answer then – and it seems, the answer now, for now – is that people who already wanted an independence referendum wanted it even more, and those who are more tepid about it can be relied upon to grumble quietly and carry on with their life and times.

But one major factor in the argument about the future of the UK has changed, and like the UK Government, we don’t know how it will play with the majority of the Scots. Like most of the political gambits emerging from the dishevelled duo of BoJo and Dom – this gambit is risky.

Though it is generally overlooked, one of the critical changes over the last decade of politics has been the Tories’ growing confidence that they know how to handle Scotland, and the mild bit of difficulty on the EU frontier we might represent.

Since the 1997 General Election knocked the Scottish Tories into orbit, the Conservatives had largely internalised the idea their party didn’t “get Scotland”. If New Labour could seize the affluent burghs of Newton Mearns, and the Nats could nab seats in the farming fastnesses of Perthshire, their political disconnect seemed profound. This political insecurity continued well into the last decade. Having ousted Gordon Brown from Downing Street, David Cameron regularly used to seek out his predecessor’s counsel on how to hold onto North Britain during the independence campaign. “Tory money and Labour activists” was the quiet watchword of the Better Together campaign, with all the self-doubt this implies from the Tory perspective.

But when Scottish Labour were vaporised in 2015 and again in 2016, many Conservatives thought again. When you find yourself winning more Scottish seats than the Labour Party, you can understand why Conservatives with a speck of concern about what goes on north of the Border began to feel growing self-confidence in their ability to read the runes of Scottish politics without the help of their friends two sword lengths across from them in the House of Commons.

This self-confidence was only encouraged by the party’s Holyrood advance in 2016 and in the General Election of 2017. The idea Tories didn’t “get” Scotland was something the Tories themselves had once internalised. Advisedly or not, that self-consciousness seems to have disappeared. Figures like Michael Gove – who despite his Oxbridge polish and North London sensibility, remains emotionally tethered to Aberdeen – have contributed to this administration’s newfound sense that the Tories didn’t have to second-guess themselves, or tread on eggshells, or apologetically ask Scottish Labour to take the lead in their stead.

SINCE the election, Johnson’s administration has embraced this strategy in spades. Their approach to dealing with the SNP – if you’ll forgive the salty summary – is not much more original or politically complex than “f**k off and die”. The attitude owes something to the idea of “no platforming”. In UK Government rhetoric, the SNP have been repositioned not as the legitimate government of Scotland, or the party with predominant public support north of the Border, but as a gadfly mob who should be marginalised and as unceremoniously stomped over whenever possible.

Screw the decencies. Screw formal politesse. Screw any semblance of consultation or reflection. The Scottish Government suggests a workable approach to developing a distinctive immigration system, reflective of the country’s needs? Dom dumps the tome in his Number 10 woodchipper, unread. Section 30? Nope-de-dope-dope. No consent from any of the devolved legislatures for the UK Government’s Brexit Bills? Who cares? Should the First Minister of Scotland have any role in the world’s biggest climate conference which is taking place in the city and country she represents? To quote the First Lord of the Treasury – allegedly: “Over my f***ing dead body. I’m not being driven out of Scotland by that bloody Wee Jimmy Krankie woman.”

When you hear that the UK Government is looking to instil a “Union mindset”, you worry that Dominic Cummings has kidnapped Better Together lady from her Clackmannanshire bungalow, and now has the poor dame lashed to a gurney in an oubliette under Downing Street, as her bowl of abandoned Weetabix turn to mulch, and her children begin to wonder where mummy has gone. Like Marty Feldman’s Igor, but without the humanity or good humour, Cummings’ alembics are bubbling ominously. His Tesla coils snap, as lightning and his crazed laughter fork across the haunted, silent silhouette of Big Ben. His beakers filled with the vital essence of true blue Unionism are extracted from his prisoner.

We’re back to Tony Blair’s conception of Holyrood as a parish council, which should focus its attention on the weighty responsibilities of ensuring the tea caddy is full and the biscuit tin is restocked, while all the serious business of politics goes on elsewhere. “Get back in your box,” it all says.

The SNP are not Scotland any more than the Conservative Party is the soul of the United Kingdom. Scotland isn’t a political monoculture. Neither is the UK. Some of us will be quite content with Brexit. Some of us will be quite content with Boris Johnson. But the overwhelming majority of Scots disagree.

The question in 2014 was whether a majority of Scots were prepared to be governed by these institutions, in this way. The question now, with Johnson in charge, is for how long we’re prepared to thole the powerlessness and vulnerability this choice in 2014 consigns us to.

Independence is ultimately about taking responsibility. Responsibility is exposing and difficult. But to me, responsibility is infinitely preferable to this future of powerlessness and vulnerability, where you are free only to gripe, never to change things, where you can criticise injustices, never correct them. Scotland doesn’t have to be a grumbling nation, relegated to toddling after, changing nothing, accepting everything. As Jim Sillars saw in 2014, we can only choose to be.