THE tele-historian Neil Oliver is evidently looking forward to 2021, a year in which the future of the UK may well be decided.

We cannot, however, be absolutely certain of this prospect because it depends on the holding of a referendum that may not be held. Nicola Sturgeon’s government will demand one if it wins in the Scottish Parliament next May. But the First Minister’s own official position is that even then, a second referendum will require the consent of Boris Johnson, who will not agree to it – not now, not for a generation. It makes no difference that the Scots’ support for national independence has been growing and at the moment enjoys quite a comfortable lead in the opinion polls. On both sides, the temperature is rising.

Nicola is in fact one of the cooler cats, able to claim that for the time being, coronavirus must take priority. She is also aware how any manoeuvre ignoring the relevant UK law, Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, will invite rejection in European capitals. A precedent was set for this in the Catalan referendum of 2017, when all the commitment and effort went in the end for nothing. A Scotland spurned in Brussels and unable to enter the EU will be less attractive to marginal voters. A policy geared to success may also be longer and slower, too long and slow for SNP militants.

Altogether then, there will be plenty going on next year, referendum or not. In The National, we can follow the fights among the different factions. But it would be a mistake to concentrate only on their pernickety differences. We must be alert to what the Unionists are preparing too. At the very least, they will be well funded. In 2014, they showed how unscrupulous they could be in terms of propaganda.

This is where Neil Oliver comes in. In the old days, Unionist historians did their job to their own satisfaction by largely ignoring Scotland’s story since 1707. There were always the Jacobite rebellions later in the 18th century, but these had of course turned out to be miserable failures and had confirmed the Scots in the wisdom of abandoning their national independence to become an insignificant province.

Neil Oliver takes a somewhat different point of view. I do not myself have a high opinion of his qualities as a historian, but there can be no doubt of the enthusiasm he brings to neglected topics from the last 300 years, which had often been ignored by his more conventional fellows. He is an archaeologist by training and started his TV career with a lot of early history. He has since moved on to modern topics often neglected by others.

Nothing wrong with that, but Neil Oliver also has problems in maintaining the degree of objectivity that most historians regard as essential to their professional activity. In particular, he is anxious to let everybody know he is a Unionist and wishes to stick so sternly to that line amid all the diversity of opinion in today’s Scotland. He has just published an essay for These Islands, except for its Unionism, a politically neutral collection of papers aiming to represent all the different points of view that might be covered by its title. His own chosen heading is Neil Oliver’s Paean to Britain. It is certainly accurate.

In fact, it is less a historical essay than an emotional rant. He starts: “I was born British and as a British citizen I will live out my days. My nationality is a state of mind and I have no intention of changing either. I know who I am and what I love – and what I love is Britain, the whole place, every nook and cranny. This is my island. No pronouncement by any politician – here today and gone tomorrow – and no referendum on this or that issue of the day will have any effect on my understanding of myself and where I belong.”

Neil Oliver is entitled to his view, which at least a large minority of other Scots agree with. He accepts that Scotland and England have shared a lot of economic and political history, yet he does not want to rest his case on that. It is rather that over the centuries of co-existence often interrupted by conflict, Scots and English have come closer together, often enough to kill one another without regretting it much. Refusal to accept Scottish independence was the English version of this reality, refusal to surrender the Scottish version.

But I wonder how he would deal with the Irish, who had also become highly anglicised in important respects before they finally decided to go their own way. In fact, about one-third of the Irish have still not decided this is what they want to do, so prefer to remain British. A great deal of suffering had gone into the relations of the two nations, yet the final separation was a real one. Relationships of this kind have evolved, and we must wonder if the emotions that go with them are some sort of infallible guide to their reality and their value. Certainly Scots and English feel differently from each other than they did 50 years ago, just as the Irish and the English do. Is the intensity of such feeling a true guide to its nature? Yet that is precisely how Neil Oliver prefers to think and write about it.

Finally, I turn to another hybrid of a man who takes the Anglo-Scottish relationship seriously. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Scottish secretary and, at a still earlier stage of his life, quite a keen devolutionist, is no stranger to the debate. He gave up this youthful folly so as to make himself more certain of a seat in Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, and there he at length arrived, eventually to take charge of the Foreign Office. Though retired from active politics since 2015, he continues to serve his country as a pundit.

He has just ventured his view of Scotland’s ideal constitutional status, which would be found as one of four units in a federal system otherwise containing England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He reaches his conclusion from two starting points. The first is that nobody wants to live in a UK with a central government as dominated as the present one is by English interests, and serving for want of anything better as the actual government of England. The second is that few of its existing citizens want the Union of the four nations to be taken apart so decisively that they become legal aliens to one another.

This requires a written constitution. Perhaps there should be a single UK-wide commission to propose one. Since the English have such a long constitutional history, their proposals would inevitably be more elaborate than anybody else’s. Scotland also has quite a respectable heritage, though not much has been added to it since 1707. For a province with such a short history, Ulster has been remarkably versatile in its state-building. And the Welsh, who did not really have any politics at all till 1999, still find delight in the novelty of the whole business.