ONE of the things that used to drive me mad when I was an MSP was the culture that disagreement within a party is a bad thing. “Split!” is the cry when politicians dare to differ. Holyrood’s political journalist pack seemed to obsess about possible divisions – which seemed much more important to them than the issues being debated. For me, that culture and attitude is the total antithesis of democracy.

Sadly, nothing much has changed over the past 10 years or so. “Referendum divisions bring home Sturgeon’s dilemma” and “New referendum split surfaces among SNP MPs” were typical headlines last week in The National’s sister paper The Herald. To say that activists in the SNP, a party with more 100,000 members, should have a variety of views about the timing of the next referendum independence is hardly investigative journalism. If it emerged that every elected SNP politician, and the entire membership, all agreed on a date, that would indeed be shocking and even deeply sinister. But as hard news goes, this one is in the same category as “Glasgow hit by heavy rain shower”.

And that’s before we even start on the multiplicity of pro-independence voices who are not SNP members.

Setting the date for the next independence referendum will be the most difficult call imaginable. Call it too early and independence could be set back by a generation. Wait until the polls reach some magical 60 per cent figure and we might wait forever. This is a dilemma that cannot be resolved by shying away from talking about it. And fear of the accusation “split” should not take precedence over the pressing, indeed overdue, need to talk tactics and strategy.

Pete Wishart is my MP. He saw his majority shrink from 10,000 to 21 last year. The 2014 referendum polarised Scotland and Pete is wedged right on the interface. So, he knows maybe better than most that passionate flag-waving isn’t going to cut it with a large chunk of the independence-sceptic electorate. It’s understandable that he’s cautious – and he’s entitled to his view without being denigrated as some kind of traitor.

There are many independence supporters who share his views. They may not be vociferous on social media, but in the real world that’s how they feel. That’s not evidence of a lack of commitment to independence. It’s exactly the opposite. Pete Wishart and multitudes of others who are equally cautious have struggled for many years to further the independence cause, and the thought of letting a chance slip away by making the wrong call weighs heavily on many minds. But that canny caution could stray into fear of democracy in action. In my view, the conditions for making the arguments for independence have never been better. All the arguments we made in 2014 have been vindicated in glorious technicolour since, from Brexit to the WASPI women, from the rape clause to the illegal bombing of Syria. On top of all that, we’ve been landed with another Tory government that we voted to get rid of and – in defiance of what should be the law of gravity – a government led by the Laurel-and-Hardy duo of Theresa May and Boris Johnson is winning back support it lost to Corbyn in 2017.

Brexit has not been the most straightforward starting gun for indyref2, but as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, if we guarantee that voters will be given a post-independence multi-option referendum on our relationship with Europe, the campaign ground could be cleared of some muddy terrain.

With everything that has happened, the principled and democratic case for independence is overwhelming. And we have the numbers in the Scottish Parliament to deliver a referendum.

Some say that if we can’t deliver a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections then we won’t win a referendum anyway. But that conflates support for independence with support for the SNP. For a short time, as part of the backlash against Labour Unionism, support for the SNP did outstrip support for independence. But that has changed. Polls now show substantially higher support for independence than for the SNP.

If the Scottish Government fails to deliver a second referendum during the current term, the soft support that has been won over, especially from former Labour voters, might decide there’s no point in voting for the SNP in 2021. They might not return to Labour, but many might just stay at home come polling day.

Before devolution, before the days of SNP governments, previous generations of independence campaigners would have laid down their lives for the conditions and levers we now hold in our hands.

There are options. Spring 2019, for example. Or autumn 2019. Or even spring or autumn 2020. I’d prefer it a bit sooner rather than later, not least because we need to get the show back on the road.

The longer we delay, the more negativity and factionalism will fester within our own camp. Right now, the conditions are much more favourable to independence than was the case back in 2012, when Alex Salmond called indyref1. And we have more activists than we could have dreamed of back then.

But the longer we hang around in a state of limbo, the more the Yes movement will dissipate and fragment. Setting a date would galvanise the movement from top to bottom. It would reignite fading interest among those who were involved passionately in 2014. It would unite the pro-independence forces by concentrating minds on a clear goal.

That’s not to say we just rush in head first. We need to be clear on what we are asking people to support, while avoiding a detailed manifesto, and that will be a tricky balancing act.

I accept there is no guarantee of victory. There never will be. That’s democracy. If we haven’t persuaded a majority of people to support independence, we will have to accept that. The people will have spoken.

But an honourable defeat would be better, in my opinion, than allowing the opportunity to slip away without putting it to the test. Our generation has been gifted fertile ground and the tools to sow it. If we don’t pick them up, we’ve only ourselves to blame. If we can’t get a majority for independence now, then maybe we will need to step aside and let another generation pick up the cudgels another day.