NICOLA Sturgeon’s speech to SNP conference is unlikely to match Theresa May’s harrowing performance last week. In electoral terms the nationalists are in a decent position, with polls suggesting the SNP will remain by far the largest group in parliament at the next Holyrood election. Wandering about the conference, I didn’t get the impression of a party that’s weary of power after 10 years of government. Sturgeon has built a disciplined army who are still hungry to win victories for her.

Nonetheless, the party most associated with the case for independence desperately needs intellectual and moral leadership to avoid a growing sense of being squeezed out of big debates.

The SNP’s problem is one of raised expectations at their doorstep. 2014 brought an unforeseen and vivifying rise in pro-independence sentiment. 2015 wiped out Scottish Labour from their base in the Westminster parliament. 2016 produced Brexit, which Sturgeon had listed as the “material circumstance” for a second independence referendum. Sturgeon’s personal popularity seemed unassailable, while her Westminster rivals were sunk in gloom. This momentum led to a feeling of an assured victory.

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Instead, Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings have continued to wane, from +42 in 2015 to +20 last year to zero today. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has gone from figure of contempt to everyone’s favourite granddad. The SNP lost a big whack of seats, while independence is off the agenda until Brexit has been finalised.

Sturgeon’s interventions on Brexit have, so far, backfired in two ways. First, she overestimated the impact the EU question would have on support for Scottish independence. Second, many voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that constitutional wrangling has left basic services neglected. John Curtice has said: “There are two areas in particular her government have been facing criticism on – education and the sense of legislative inactivity”.

Sturgeon’s speech will double down on the question of Brexit, which will be a crowd-pleaser, in the conference chamber at least. And the SNP will pass some decent motions on public-sector pay and Catalonia. None of this, though, is the new leadership activists are calling for. It addresses neither the problems in public services nor the global convulsions of democratic politics.

For some, the answer is to talk less about the big issues and more about bread-and-butter policies. I see that logic, and partly accept it, but I start from a different position.

Recently, the independence movement has lacked a global perspective. This is the paradoxical effect of Brexit. Instead of leading to a greater interest in the fractured internal politics of the European continent, it has encouraged people to paint the UK as a uniquely abysmal failed state and everywhere else in Europe as one big tent of liberal loveliness, a paradise of equity and democracy. Nobody who lives in Europe sees things this way: they might oppose Brexit, but only because they want the UK to balance out the growing dominance of Germany in Brussels. Scotland’s imagination of Europe, then, is a local one, and a fantasy, albeit a fantasy shared by every party in Holyrood. The obsession with big worldwide questions is making our ideas weirdly parochial.

Realistically, the current crisis is not specifically British, but global. It’s a democratic crisis, a collapse of trust in established political institutions. It’s a crisis of liberalism, with the techno-utopian joys of internet free speech increasingly becoming an unstoppable abyss of hate speech. And it’s a crisis of capitalism, as growth splutters along like a clapped-out Lada and the super-rich enjoy the bulk of any benefits.

Labour and the Tories are trying to navigate these global questions, sometimes effectively, sometimes dismally. But in the independence bubble, it’s like we’ve convinced ourselves that these problems end once we’ve broken up Britain and re-entered the EU. If that view is taking hold, it’s unlikely to gain credibility with anyone who watches the world news and sees Trump, Catalonia, the economic collapse of southern Europe and the rise of xenophobia in the north.

The real cause of our troubles has a name: neoliberalism. A decade ago, the competitive free-market orthodoxies of three decades seemed to topple. The nationalisation of banks, at incalculable cost, refuted the religiously held notion of marketplace efficiency. Then came austerity, as the costs of bank bailouts were passed down to the poorest in society, while the rich continued to rake in profits while going on an investment strike.

Neoliberalism absorbed meaningful choice in democracies, as centre-left parties converted to the cult of markets. It destroyed personal freedom by substituting liberalisation for liberation, the infinite bazaar of internet pornography for the promise of sexual and personal fulfilment. And, ultimately, after coming to capitalism’s rescue in the 1970s, it has begun to undermine basic economics too, as mega-rich investors take irresponsible risks and rely on the public to clean up after them.

Some people don’t accept this analysis. They say neoliberalism is just a political slur used by disillusioned leftists, and it’s true, the word can be used as a meaningless insult. But last year, the International Monetary Fund confirmed something we’ve long known: neoliberalism exists. “Aspects of the neoliberal agenda have not delivered as expected,” they admitted. “The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish … the costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent … increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth.”

As Stephen Metcalf has observed, the term is useful because it allows us to assign responsibility – eg for the crisis of 2007 – without simply slandering parties or individuals. Just about everyone in mainstream politics signed up to the neoliberal value system.

It became the framework for modernising public services, for reorganising workplaces, for making centre-left politics acceptable to the electorate.

It encouraged human beings to behave like consumers in all areas of life. It told people to demand world-class public services and lower taxes. It encouraged the delusion that everyone should celebrate the rich, because one day we’d all be rich.

Neoliberalism has left societies financially, politically and morally bankrupt. Nowhere is immune. Europe is broken, America is crackers, and meaningful democracy has barely spread beyond the global north. Yes, Britain turned to the market gospel first, and fastest, and became its beacon in the 1980s and 1990s. But Scottish independence needs more than complaints about British backwardness. To tackle a crisis of public services, incomes and democracy, we’ve got to honestly face the global roots of an ongoing crisis and help lead the world to somewhere better.