IT used to be the proud boast of Labour that they were “the party of the working class”. South of the Border. That might still have some resonance despite the party leadership’s disastrous incompetence over Brexit, culminating in the European election campaign when they managed to persuade Leave voters that it was a pro-Remain party and Remain voters that it was a pro-Leave.

In Scotland, however – once the impregnable stronghold of the Labour movement – they have dynamited their support base. The universal triumph of the SNP across the whole of Scotland bar the Northern Isles has blurred the more detailed regional picture.

SNP support across Clydeside and Dundee is now running 10 to 15 points higher than in the most affluent rural areas. The SNP have replaced Labour as the party of the Scottish working class.

And that is why the surge towards independence could become unstoppable. For the past three decades, Scottish Labour have been the lynchpin of the Union, their formidable strength across Scotland’s densely populated central belt the single biggest obstacle in the path of national independence. And now that obstacle lies in ruins.

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The full implication of Labour’s demise can be seen by comparing last week’s European election results in the west of Scotland with the same election in 2014, which was held just four months before the referendum. Only in one council area in the country, the Western Isles, did a pro-independence party win an outright majority. And there were only 30 votes in it.

This time round, five councils – three on Clydeside, plus Dundee and the Western Isles – recorded an absolute majority for the two pro-independence parties standing. In Glasgow, for example, the pro-independence vote soared from 42% in 2014 to 56% in 2019.

No wonder the regiment of candidates standing for the Tory leadership are lining up to express their fear of a new independence referendum. The Scots-born MP for Penrith and the Border, Rory Stewart, is more articulate than his rivals and, in contrast to the hapless Sajid Javid, stopped short of declaring his intent to refuse Scotland permission to decide our own future. Instead, he told us it would “break his heart” if Scotland were to leave in UK, that referendums solve nothing and are deeply divisive, and that he trusted Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon when they said the 2014 vote was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The National: Then First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon with the Scotlands Future White Paper.

Within the space of a few words, there is more mythology than in a chapter of Lord of the Rings. The once-in-a-lifetime comment from Alex Salmond repeated in the White Paper, was not a pledge but an opinion. And it was expressed on the reasonable assumption that a No vote would leave the SNP and the Yes movement so demoralised and weakened that it would be almost impossible to regroup for decades.

Who could possibly have foreseen that, instead of dispersing from the battlefield like a defeated army, the Yes movement would rise up like a force of nature, turning the SNP into the biggest party Scotland has ever seen and sweeping their rivals aside in the first big electoral test after the referendum?

And in any case, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that in launching the White Paper, the then first minister expressed an important caveat. As reported by the ultra-Unionist Daily Express at the time, back in February 2014: “Scots could face another independence referendum in little more than three years, Alex Salmond hinted yesterday as he vowed to keep battling to break up Britain … the First Minister said a No vote in September would not settle the issue. The SNP leader said the public could be asked to go to the polls again if the UK decides to pull out of the EU in 2016.”

The idea that referendums are nasty, divisive and not worth the disruption has become something of a mantra for the UK political elites. The political antecedents of Rory Stewart used the same arguments to block universal suffrage back in the 19th century. In the 1830s, the historian and Whig MP for Edinburgh Thomas Macaulay warned that the right to vote would lead to “the destruction of civilisation and a return to barbarism”.

The National: Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart

The same elitist arrogance is evident today. Ordinary people can’t be trusted with direct democracy. The riff-raff just can’t be allowed any serious say in matters of great importance.

Never mind that the Republic of Ireland has held 15 referendums since the millennium on a diverse range of issues from EU treaties to the abolition of death penalty, the right to divorce and the level of judges’ salaries. In the past year alone, Irish voters have gone to the polls in national referendums to decide on abortion rights, blasphemy and equal marriage. And yes, these have been extremely controversial. In the run-up to the abortion ballot, supporters of the right to choose were routinely denounces as “baby killers” while such was the level of abuse and jeering during televised debates that they were compared with the Jerry Springer show.

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But that’s democracy. And no-one in Ireland is demanding that all these big decisions should in the future be left in the hands of 158 TDs in the Dáil. Are people in Scotland really so sensitive to direct democracy that we cannot cope with maybe two, or three or four referendums?

People have strong views and if politicians try to suppress public debate, they will store up serious social problems for the future. In the meantime, the SNP and the broader Yes movement should take cognisance of where the greatest potential for winning over former voters now lies. Among the affluent and elderly Tory voters in the most prosperous parts of rural Scotland? Or among the urban and rural working classes who in these past five years have broken free of Labour influence in their hundreds of thousands and show no inclination to return to the arms of the traditional British left?

The independence movement is of necessity a broad coalition stretching from the moderate centre to the radical working-class socialist left. That spectrum is reflected in the SNP’s membership and its electoral base. That’s a difficult balancing act to pull off over such a sustained period.

At some point after independence, some of these differences will inevitably have be fought out strenuously at the ballot box in local and national elections. But to get there, the entire movement needs to be clear which forces are most likely to turn out in the huge numbers needed to deliver a future Yes vote.