The first independence campaign seems to have had two very different effects:
The Yes voters started to dream about creating a better place. We basically took to heart Alasdair Gray’s words: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. That was great while it lasted, but the effect now is that we’re even more unhappy about the state of the UK than before, and about the limitations of devolution. We’ve essentially seen what Scotland could be, and it’s frustrating to be stuck in a very different place, without the ability to change very much.
The No voters were perhaps also dreaming, but their dream was a nightmare. Project Fear got under their skin, and they realised that their worst fear was to get cut off from the UK. Even if they had up to that point been happy to talk about being a nation again and all that, they realised that when push came to shove, they had to vote for Britain. They might never have believed a word of the Vow, and they might even have expected Westminster to punish Scotland for daring to hold an independence referendum, but the alternative was worse in their eyes. Even if they had been told the price for remaining in the UK was to sacrifice the Scottish Parliament, they would probably still have voted No. This explains why No voters react so negatively to any talk about a second independence referendum: They didn’t experience a joyful time, full of dreams about building a better country, but instead they spent two years in a living nightmare.
If I’m right about this, it gives the Tories a carte blanche to do whatever they fancy so long as there is a majority of No voters in Scotland. That’s why Theresa May was able to get away with slapping down the Scottish Parliament’s request for a second independence referendum with the words “Now is not the time.” That’s why they think that changing the devolution settlement without Holyrood’s consent won’t push a significant number of No voters to Yes. And every time they get away with it, it emboldens them.
The thousand unicorn question is whether the No voters have a breaking point after all. Not necessarily all of them, but enough to create a solid majority for independence. Is there anything that will make them confront their worst fear again and reach a different conclusion?