IT was a shrewd article that Tommy Sheppard MP wrote in the Sunday Herald, to shine a light through the swirling gloom of what is starting to look like the long death agony of the British state. We cannot tell how all of this is going to end, yet it seems unlikely the UK will in the final analysis be able to maintain its integrity.

“Amid the current chaos in Westminster it seems certain that a hard Brexit is now off the table," Tommy wrote. “The possibility of bespoke solutions for nations and regions is growing … It follows, therefore, that it is now an option to wait until the Brexit negotiations conclude before forming a view on whether the extent of change justifies a second independence referendum as a result. This would mean that whilst a second referendum remains an option, the timetable gets parked.”

This is to my mind the right response to the hysterical calls from within the Tory ranks that a second referendum should be taken off the table. How could the SNP ever do this when ScotRef is the recognised road to independence, and independence remains the ultimate aim of our ruling party? You might as well ask the Tories to renounce capitalism – though at times, it is true, Theresa May came close to doing that in the early days of her premiership. Still, history is likely to look back on that as one of the crazier caprices of a catastrophic Prime Minister. Nicola Sturgeon can show herself more strong and stable if she agrees that Scotland should just wait to see how Brexit turns out.

The main point on which I disagree with Tommy is where he says "there will, of course, always be some people on the right of the political spectrum who support independence. But not many." From one of them, I’d say that is a get-out a bit too easy. After all, there were a great many more of such people at the General Election of 2015 than there were at the General Election of 2017. In between the two, the SNP lost nearly half a million votes. Some were clawed back by Labour in the late and unsuspected Corbyn surge. But the biggest reverses to the cause of independence came in the north-east and the south of Scotland.

I don’t want to make extravagant claims for my own point of view, but we might conservatively estimate that 250,000 of those lost votes belonged to people who either abstained in disillusion with the Scottish Government or else turned all the way back to the Tories. That would be one in six of the nearly 1.5 million Scots who supported the SNP in 2015. There cannot be another political party in the world that would so casually accept, if I read Tommy correctly, the erosion of such a huge share of its following, especially as this share had formed the bedrock of the party for 30 years. But I almost hear voices from the Central Belt saying: “Good riddance to bad rubbish. Now we can get on with socialism.”

In a difficult and confused political situation, people like that should at least ask themselves a couple of basic questions. Would they be happy to live in an independent Scotland which was fully integrated into the global capitalist system? This is after all the kind of independent Scotland we are most likely to get, since the dead theories of socialism offer no practical answers to the problems that a small and open, but slightly ailing, economy like ours will need to face, not least in conforming to the four freedoms of the EU.

Or is socialism the true priority of these people? If so, they need to make some sort of calculation of how long it is going to take to convert an actual majority of Scots to their cause. I’m quite prepared to accept that Scotland is a more radical and progressive country than England, but still point out that this has never been transformed into an absolute majority for socialism (while Unionism did win such an absolute majority, in the general election of 1955). In particular, there has long been a hotbed of socialism in west central Scotland, yet always outweighed by the convictions of the more old-fashioned cities, the small burghs and the agricultural communities round the rest of the country.

These realities remain with us, and surely they should colour the judgment of all who try to discern a path through the present political murk. For me, they reinforce the pragmatic view that the fact of Scottish independence is what we should focus on, while the social arrangements of the independent nation can be left till after it has come into existence (we can’t do much about them till then anyway). For the pragmatist, the only good reason to hold ScotRef, early or late, is so that the Yes side can win a majority. Is this more likely to come about through somehow deepening the nation’s socialist commitment, such as it is, or by reaching out and back to those of its citizens who are not interested in socialism but will opt for independence on other grounds?

For instance, I would have thought most Scots will above all assess whether independence will make them and their families richer. This is how democracy in practice works and democracy is for the masses, who are usually little interested in grand social and economic theories. That is why this column, ever since I started writing it, has called for policies to make the Scottish economy grow faster, so that all Scots can become richer. The government has taken little notice, which is perhaps one reason why it finds itself in its present perplexity.

This brings me to a final thought provoked by Tommy Sheppard, as I turn to those who take an opposite line from him on the best way forward. These are the enthusiasts in the newspapers or on the internet constantly urging ScotRef on us more or less regardless of the present prospects for victory. They are often the same people who, in the week before September 18, 2014, kept telling me of imminent triumph in the first referendum. No matter that this forecast rested on a single opinion poll 10 days before, which might even have been accurate at the time it was taken. But a great deal can change in 10 days, and it did. Still the most passionate campaigners remained convinced that enthusiasm and conviction would be enough to carry the cause through. They were wrong.

The present febrile atmosphere bears some resemblance to those heady days, but the brute fact now overshadowing all other facts about Scotland is that a couple of weeks ago the actual support for national independence, as measured by the vote for the SNP, fell to 37 per cent. No ifs and buts, no quibbles or qualifications can get round this. OK, the parliamentary majority of Scottish seats was saved, but the result of a referendum will not be determined by parliamentary seats. It will be determined by the percentages of votes.

In September 2014, 45 per cent of Scots voted for independence, so a national swing to Yes of five per cent – common enough in parliamentary seats – would have made all the difference. In June 2017, 37 per cent of Scots voted for independence. Now the Yes side needs a 13 per cent swing, a task to tax even the greatest enthusiasm and conviction. I’m afraid to say that, as things stand, ScotRef would be lost, probably by a much greater margin. In that case, the cause of independence really would be dead, not just for a year or two but, as somebody once said, for a generation.