I STILL remember the hopes of a new politics for a new Scotland expressed amid the joy and optimism surrounding the re-establishing of the Scottish Parliament way back in 1999.

In the wake of this week’s disastrous, dispiriting and depressing SNP leadership debate it’s obvious those hopes have not been fulfilled.

What happened to those suggestions of a more collaborative, less antagonistic type of politics based on the European model rather than the Commons blood-baiting?

Judging from the past few days we’re not only incapable of cutting out hatred from debates with our political opponents we’re pretty brutal when we cross swords with our political allies.

Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake in the SNP leadership contest. Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as party leader and first minister after almost unparalleled electoral success and with an approval rating rarely if ever seen for a political leader after eight punishing years in power.

We now need someone to step into her shoes, to both protect her achievements and her legacy and to revitalise the campaign to win independence as it becomes ever more essential that we triumph.

Instead, the STV leadership debate on Tuesday saw one candidate attack the performance of another while describing her own party’s performance in government as mediocre.

This is not just the cut and thrust of politics but a swingeing volte-face by a cabinet minister who has since 2020 been in the room where all the major political decisions have been made.

It’s an astounding rejection of the principle of collective responsibility, kicked out the window in a blatant pursuit of power.

Kate Forbes has form when it comes to speaking out against decisions made by a government in which she plays a leading role.

By rejecting the principle of gay marriage, she has called into question her commitment to the progressive policies which have come to define the modern SNP.

And she has couched her criticism of party policies and colleagues in ways which have effectively blocked any response to her actions.

Those who have argued against allowing her fundamental Christian beliefs to influence her voting on gay marriage, abortion and other socially progressive policies have been painted as intolerant bigots who want to banish religion from the political sphere.

Her harsh words on Humza Yousaf’s political career have caused such controversy over the tenor of debate that anyone answering her points with similar “directness” will be accused of bringing the party into more disrepute.

Forbes, therefore, gets to make her points as a feisty rebel, while the more civil Yousaf is painted as the favoured candidate of a suddenly tainted SNP “establishment”.

We are truly stuck in the nightmarish upside down where defending gay rights against arguments to vote to limit them is seen as an example of bigotry.

Where responding to wild and unsubstantiated claims against a cabinet colleague is portrayed as descending into gutter politics.

Where recognising the substantial achievements of politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney is somehow swallowing the “establishment” line.

Forbes has every right to stand for the leadership of her party, as do the other two candidates. She has every right to lay out her plans for that leadership and to compare those plans to those of her opponents for the job.

But when she uses gross exaggerations such as “the trains NEVER ran on time” – exaggerations, by the way, which would rightly be greeted with derision were they voiced by Douglas Ross or Anas Sarwar – it seems only right to look at her own record.

The main thrust of the “anti-SNP establishment” argument in this contest is that the campaign for independence has stalled and that an opportunity to bring it closer to becoming a reality has somehow been missed. We are being invited to look at the SNP’s record in government and ask how it has advanced the case for independence.

The Forbes leadership campaign makes much of her competence as finance secretary, suggesting that public confidence in her stewardship of the very limited parts of the Scottish economy under her control will encourage them to support independence.

There is no evidence of that happening. In fact, one of the most important reason it is not happening is the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) compiled every year by the Scottish Government’s statisticians and seized upon every year by most of the mainstream press as evidence that Scotland is too poor to stand on its own feet.

The GERS report published in August 2022 calculated the Scottish economy to be showing a “deficit” – defined as the “shortfall between taxes raised here … and public spending” – of £23.7 billion.

The Tories’ Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack said the figures showed “how people [in Scotland] and their families benefit massively from being part of a strong, resilient UK”.

He added: “As part of the UK we can rely on the Treasury to step up to support us in plugging the gap.”

In fact, the GERS report shows us no such thing.

It shows how the Scottish economy performs as part of the UK and indicates precisely nothing about how it would perform if Scotland were an independent country.

This point is made every year when the GERS report is reported – wrongly – in the Unionist media as undeniable proof that Scotland’s economy cannot support an independent country. The point is made and ignored. The public sees the deficit and believes the worst.

The GERS report is a regular and predictable blow to the case for independence, regardless of how much we wish it were otherwise.

So why does the Scottish Government, with Forbes in charge of its finances, take part in this dreadful act of self-harm year in and year out? Why not defy Westminster and publish meaningful figures about the Scottish economy and independence figures?

It is bad enough that Forbes will not challenge Westminster imposing its will on the gender recognition reform democratically approved with all-party support by the Scottish Parliament.

How much worse is it to continue publishing a report demanded by Westminster with the express purpose of undermining the case for independence?

The Finance Secretary agrees this is folly. In 2021, she committed herself to producing an alternative GERS report which would show the true position of the Scottish economy in relation to independence. Business for Scotland has been calling for years for just such a report.

“Every year GERS contains clear evidence of mechanisms for removing wealth from Scotland’s accounts to create a phoney deficit,” wrote Business for Scotland chief executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp wrote two years ago.

Yet despite her 2021 commitment, Forbes has yet to produce such a report. In fact, reports suggest that at the launch of her leadership bid last month she refused to confirm that she still had plans to do so.

I make this point not to deny that Forbes is 100% committed to independence. She is. So too is Yousaf. And Ash Regan. And Sturgeon, Swinney and the 150 prominent SNP women who yesterday signed a letter calling for the next first minister to defend and advance women’s reproductive rights.

My point is that there are many reasons why people support independence and many different methods they support to achieve that aim. This is in no way an “establishment” position and the task is in no way easy. We want to break free of Westminster control and, after the experience of 2014, Westminster is determined to do everything in its power to deny us that opportunity.

Her experience and performance in government should have taught Forbes that she is in no position to cast doubt on her Cabinet colleagues’ ability to miraculously make Scotland an internationally recognised independent country simply by wishing it were so.

Nor does it advance the cause in any way to trash the reputation of a government unbeatable at the ballot box, or reduce public confidence in the abilities of cabinet ministers simply to score self-serving political points. Or, while we’re at it, to threaten the stability of a pro-independence majority at Holyrood by undermining an agreement supported by 90% of those whose votes she seeks.

We all want independence for different reasons. I want an independent Scotland to be a free, tolerant country which seeks equality, fairness and justice for its population and embraces modern, progressive values.

The very least I expect from a movement dedicated to creating that country is civility and mutual respect. It’s time to see more of that and less self-serving self-indulgence.