THIS is the time of year when we traditionally look to the future with hope and optimism. For a lot of people, that’s not easy. Those who suffer serious illness, poverty, abuse, exploitation or other tragic circumstances beyond their control can’t just wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Life, sadly, is not a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.

And that applies not just to individuals, but to the whole of humanity. At the turn of the millennium, many of us looked forward to the possibility of a bright new dawn of peace, prosperity, cooperation and reduced inequality.

Instead, we were plunged into a new age of barbarism, as war, racism, terrorism, inequality, climate chaos and economic instability ran rampant across the globe. Eighteen years on from the celebratory fireworks that greeted the 21st century, we’ve ended up with a dangerously unstable egomaniac in the White House and the resurgence of right-wing, xenophobic British nationalism on this side of the Atlantic.

There are some lights in the darkness. The reawakening of feminism. The transformation in social attitudes towards sexuality. The rout of the Blairite pro-big business warmongers within the Labour Party. And, of course, the rise of progressive independence movements that are challenging entrenched power and privilege in two of the most conservative states in Europe.

The national movements in Scotland in Catalonia are stronger than ever before. But one thing we’ve learned since the millennium is that nothing can be taken for granted. Anything can happen.

We can’t influence events on the Iberian Peninsula. But the future of Scotland and of the UK is at least partly in the hands of those who form up the backbone of the independence movement. Many, I’m sure, are regular National readers. So, I’ll take this opportunity to suggest a few things that I would like to see happen within the movement this year.

First on my New Year wish list is a proliferation of community-based, decentralised, grassroots activist groups. We won’t win independence through the media. Yes, we need to get our message out there on TV and radio, and in the pages of the newspapers. And yes, social media has a major part to play in disseminating information and ideas to mass audiences.

But the battle for Scotland’s future will be won or lost at local level. Nothing beats engaging with people face to face, whether on the doorstep, in workplaces, in the pubs and coffee shops, or at public meetings. That was crucial in 2014. So, we need a revived, active network of supporters covering every town, village and urban neighbourhood, rooted and respected in the wider communities and with its finger on the pulse of local issues.

Secondly, I would like to see the independence movement do a little bit less talking and a lot more listening. Those who spend their lives in the world of social media can easily get the impression that Scotland consists of two huge enemy camps — Nats and Yoons to use the derogatory terms employed by the respective sides — with a small group somewhere in the middle.

That artificial picture is reinforced by opinion polls, which ask a binary question to which most people answer Yes or No, with only a small number prepared to admit that they don’t know. But these polls don’t measure depth.

Activists in all spheres of life can be susceptible to projecting their own strength of feeling on to the wider population.

That was the point Kirsty Blackman, the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, was driving at last week when she said: “I don’t think most folk in their daily lives give two hoots about whether Scotland is a member of the Union.” A sobering thought for some of us — but it’s true.

A sizeable chunk of people who tell pollsters they will vote Yes may well end up voting No in an actual referendum, while on the other side many No voters could be won over to the Yes cause. To win this battle of ideas, we need to fully understand where people are right now, what their hopes and fears for the future are, what are the issues that concern them. To me, that’s the essential next step for the independence movement.

And that brings me to point three. People don’t like being preached at. They don’t like being told they are wrong. They don’t generally warm to know-alls, no matter how clever the arguments.

So, I would like those involved on our side to become more respectful in the way they conduct themselves in person and on social media. Yes, we want passion and energy. But while repeated venomous attacks on “Yoons” might get you lots of retweets and likes on social media, it does nothing to advance the cause. It’s easy and it’s lazy but it’s all too often counter productive.

AND finally, the fourth point on my wish list for the independence movement is that we recapture that delicate balance of unity and diversity that electrified so much of Scotland in 2014.

Back then, no-one on the Yes side who expressed any disagreement with the SNP was accused of being a traitor or treated as an enemy to be liquidated. We were able to maximise the Yes vote, geographically and across social classes, by accepting that the cause of independence did not belong to one political party but embraced different ideological positions.

And this is a two-way street. Greens and socialists have a vital role to play in delivering independence, especially in mobilising and motivating young people and the working-class heartlands of Scotland. And they can help shape a better nation post-independence. In the meantime, constructive criticism of specific policies is fair and reasonable.

But the SNP are not the enemy of the Scottish working class. Without a strong SNP, the independence movement would have dwindled long ago to the margins.

And, despite my own disagreements with the Scottish Government, it’s self-evident in my opinion that if Scotland had been ruled over these past 10 years by any permutation of the London-based parties, it would be a far worse place to live in today.

No devolved administration, short of declaring UDI, can avoid the fall-out from the age of austerity that was created by bankers and is sustained by a Tory Government in Westminster.

Despite everything, I remain optimistic that by the end of this year, we will be a lot closer to independence than we are right now. And if we ain’t, then I suspect we’ll only have ourselves to blame.