I can't find the passage, but if memory serves there's a moment in War and Peace when the assembled company is discussing Napoleon Bonaparte and marvelling at and quaking before the string of military victories he has won and how this spells doom for poor Russia when an old and ancient battle-weathered chap growls something to the effect of "Who has he beaten? Only Germans. Everyone has always beaten the Germans."
Well, not quite. But you get the point. This is something to keep in mind next time you hear someone worry about Alex Salmond. Take for instance my old friend Jenny Hjul, writing in the Sunday Times:
Really? Is Salmond truly some kind of political genius whose every move is touched with gold and luck? I doubt it. But this is the sort of thinking that leaves Unionism in a defensive crouch and, actually, leaves the field open to Salmond. And who, pray, has Salmond beaten? Only, representing Labour, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander and Iain Gray; the Tories' David McLetchie and Aunt Annabel Goldie plus, if you must count them, Lib Dems of the calibre of Nicoll Stephen and Tavish Scott. That is, generally speaking, a line-up of punch-shy, glass-chinned fighters Frank Bruno could have dealt with. And his mother owuld have won some of those bouts too. If only on points.“
If Gordon Brown won’t allow a referendum on Scottish independence when he calls a general election, then David Cameron, once in No 10, should test the strength of the union in a plebiscite, or so the argument goes. The justification is that the separatists would be so convincingly defeated that they would slope off into the sunset and never dare raise the subject again, or not for a generation anyway. This is dangerous territory into which the Scottish Tories in Holyrood must not stray. Give Salmond an inch and he will manipulate it into a mile.
Now it's true that Laboru ran a desperate - and dishonest - campaign in 2007 (surprise!) but that doesn't mean Unionism is destined to remain on the back foot. Commenter Oban rightly observes that too often the case for the Union is made in a negative sense. If Unionism is to prevail - in the long run - hat cannot continue.
So I think a post I wrote about about Cameronian Unionism last October still stands:
"Of course it is possible that Scotland can stand alone – that is true. I just think it would be better off in the United Kingdom. Better off for all of us.
"I don't think we'd ever succeed in saving the Union by frightening Scots to say you couldn't possibly make it on your own. That's not the way I approach it. The Union to me is about generosity – we're stronger together because we share so much together."
The contrast with the kind of sneering, boorish Unionism that stresses economics and presumes some kind of crippling inadequacy that renders Scotland unusually incapable of ordering things is a) significant and b) encouraging. I think it probable that you can win the Unionist argument on economic grounds, but doing so demands that you sour Scotland in order to save her. The country is unlikely to be at ease if the constitutional question is settled by scare tactics. The idea that independence isn't feasible is both infantile and, worse, infantilising. It breeds a chippy sense of resentment in a country already more than well-stocked with the stuff.
No, the case for the Union - and it's a perfectly strong one - needs to be made in terms of culture, not economics. It's a question of temperament, of history, of, yes, values and culture and all the other stuff that's bundled together and covered by the Union Flag. Three hundred years is a lot of water under the bridge.
I still think that's true. Salmond is a canny operator and there's a perfectly respectable case for independence. But it's not, at present, one that's supported by a majority of Scots. That may change, but there's no reason for Unionists - and Unionism - to cower or cringe or shrink from the battle simply because Salmond has previously run rings around a bunch of no-hopers. And if Unionism isn't prepared to make a case for itself then perhaps it doesn't deserve to prevail?