Scotland has always been a nation of political hegemonies. For the first half of the last century, the Conservative party was the natural choice for voters, with its One Nation brand of patriotic paternalism.

The next 50 years were dominated by the Scottish Labour party, whose appeal to the urban working class gained particular resonance in the 1980s, as a response to the industrial vandalism of successive Thatcher administrations.

When the SNP emerged as a dominant political force after 2007, it seemed it would be the natural party of government for a similar length of time, but financial scandal and failures of leadership appear to have halted a momentum that once seemed unstoppable.

A series of recent polls has seen support for the nationalists slipping, and new research showed the party is now neck-and-neck with Labour. If a general election was held tomorrow, Labour and the nationalists would each win 24 seats, according to the Survation poll.

But another recent political development signalled that the SNP’s legacy may be more enduring than the party’s current popularity in the polls.

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The admission this week by Kezia Dugdale, former leader of Scottish Labour, that she may support independence in the future, is illustrative of a deeper and more profound shift in attitudes.

The police investigation into the SNP’s finances is ongoing, and historians will doubtless argue about the party’s record on health, education, and ferry contracts. But they should all agree that its more durable influence has been to place the question of independence at the forefront of politics.

The same Survation poll showed support for independence at 48% with No on 52% – roughly the same levels recorded in the 2014 referendum.

And that brings us to a unique juncture in the country’s history, where support for a sovereign Scotland outstrips support for the party which, until now, has been the principle and most obvious route to that goal.

It may have seemed unthinkable even a year ago, but the achievement of independence is now more important to more people than support for the SNP.

Dugdale’s intervention is significant because she is the most senior member of a unionist party to indicate that she’s changed her mind about publicly supporting independence in the past decade.

She’s not alone. There has always been a nationalist wing of Scottish Labour but, until now, it’s been barely visible and even less vocal.

The Herald: Humza Yousaf and Lorna Slater lead a pro-independence rallyHumza Yousaf and Lorna Slater lead a pro-independence rally (Image: free)

A handful of former Labour figures – Alex Neil, Jim Sillars and Tommy Sheppard – travelled the same ideological route as Dugdale, as far back as the early 1980s.

The main difference between then and now is that current Scottish Labour members, who feel the same way, will not necessarily see joining the SNP as a more effective route to independence.

While there is no immediate sign of Scottish Labour changing its attitude toward independence under leader Anas Sarwar, pressure may soon start to build from within.

Scottish Labour has its roots in the UK party, which has been a staunch advocate of the Union, emphasising solidarity between working-class communities across the nations.

Its position is also heavily influenced by the additional 50 or more seats north of the border that it has been able to rely on in the past, to boost its chances of success in general elections.

Unlike the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party – for whom opposition to independence is a fundamental tenet of its identity – Scottish Labour has always been more secular about the issue.

For its members, the Union is not an article of faith, but rather it is intricately tied to questions of identity, representation, values, and electoral fairness.

Central to the calculus of, particularly young, Labour voters is the fact that in only seven of 21 UK general elections since 1945 has the popular vote in Scotland been for the party that went on to form a government – a strike rate of just one in three.

UK Labour has long argued that many English regions are affected by the same democratic deficit, and that the best way to address this is through electoral reform and increasing powers to devolved institutions.

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But a growing number of voters – including many so-called ‘centrists’ – see Scotland, in political as well as cultural terms, as a separate nation, rather than as a region of the UK.

For them, having a vote that counts in only a third of national elections is too much of a price to pay for a nominal notion of class solidarity. Where, they might well ask, was reciprocal support in the 2016 Brexit vote, when Scotland was taken out of the EU against its will?

That, for many young Scots, was a turning point in convincing them that independence would allow Scotland to chart its own course, pursuing policies that align more closely with their priorities, addressing a growing desire for greater autonomy and self-determination.

Of course, supporting independence would not come without challenges for Scottish Labour. It would need to address, properly and sincerely, grown-up concerns about the economic viability of a sovereign Scotland, the potential impact on cross-border cooperation and trade, and the intricate process of disentangling the country from the UK.

It would need to grapple with the risk of alienating its traditional base in some parts of Scotland that remains loyal to the Union, and of striking a balance between the aspirations of younger, more progressive voters who lean towards independence and their more traditional elders.

But for many people, the electoral decline of the nationalists is seen as an opportunity rather than the death-knell for the independence movement.

The fiscal dishonesty of the SNP – in refusing to accept publicly that there would be a potentially significant economic hit, at least in the short term following independence – has held back the cause among educated, political savvy voters who know when they’re being patronised from a great height.

The Herald: Independence is now more popular than the SNP, according to recent pollingIndependence is now more popular than the SNP, according to recent polling (Image: free)

The SNP's internal challenges, coupled with long-standing concerns about fiscal transparency and leadership controversies, underline the importance of considering alternative voices.

The party’s recent dominance is, at least in part, recognition of its success in elevating the cause of independence from a minor, pressure group obsession in the mid 20th century, to a legitimate and realistic ambition. It also benefited from being seen to stand up for Scottish interests.

But, in truth, it never made the leap from opposition to ruling party, too often seeing itself as a brake on the worst excesses of Tory administrations at Westminster, rather than as a governing party, responsible for proactively improving the lives of voters.

The blurred lines between party and government contributed to its challenges and the close relationship between former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, the party’s ex-chief executive, led to a confusion of party machinery and government operations.

Lack of experience and internal democracy handling, coupled with a leadership team inexperienced in such matters, resulted in frustrations among members and internal critics. Calls for party reform have grown louder, with members demanding transparency and accountability from the leadership.

Humza Yousaf, the new leader, faces the task of addressing these issues and bridging the gap between parliamentarians and the membership. His response to recent events has shown a shift in tone, as he acknowledges the problems faced by the party. The SNP's ability to regain trust and navigate these challenges will be crucial for its future, especially in the face of mounting calls for party reform.

Labour, with its historical ties to the working class and evolving political philosophy, has the potential to broaden the movement for independence and address the democratic imbalances that have plagued Scotland's political landscape.

As Dugdale's admission highlights, political allegiances are not set in stone, and a more inclusive approach may hold the key to achieving the aspirations of a diverse Scottish populace.

Carlos Alba ran the media campaign for Ken MacIntosh’s bid to become Scottish Labour leader against Kezia Dugdale