LEADERSHIP debates can be cathartic and about renewal, helping political parties to reconnect with voters and win again.

This was Labour’s story after John Smith’s death in 1994 which saw Tony Blair then win three elections in a row; or the Tories in 2005 after three defeats which saw the election of David Cameron and the Tories go on to win four elections in a row.

Labour and Tories then were parties exhausted by defeat and wanting to change. It is much harder to do this while in office, as the current SNP leadership contest demonstrates.

This is in all honesty not impressive so far, partly due to the lack of preparation of the candidates but also because of their quality.

Debate until now has been superficial. It has reinforced the SNP’s mythology about itself. Nowhere have the candidates confronted the reality of 16 years of the SNP in government; instead, they have rolled out the usual platitudes about Scotland heading in the right direction, getting more equal and fair, along with endless self-congratulation, mixed with a small amount of needing to learn lessons and do better.

No candidate has dealt with the reality of stretched-to-breaking-point local government on the SNP’s watch; the state of education and health; or the damning verdict on the Scottish Government from Audit Scotland emphasising the disjuncture between policy pronouncements and delivery.

Some want to excuse this by talking about the lack of preparation of the candidates and the need to get their teams and messaging in place.

There may be a small amount of truth in this, but two candidates have been senior Cabinet ministers for several years.

Both Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes will only have been human if during that time they occasionally thought about the leadership. It is inconceivable that the first they ever seriously thought about it was the day of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation.

Part of what is missing is evident in how the three candidates talk about independence. One element of this is the legacy of the Sturgeon approach over eight years which involved avoiding strategic choices and open debate, and instead – post-2016 Brexit vote – giving the impression that an indyref was close to imminent.

All three have inherited an environment where the party has forgotten how to debate big stuff like the meaning of independence or its record in government. It has forgotten how to engage in substantive debate, because that needs to be renewed and regularly nourished, otherwise the skills and intelligence involved atrophy.

This is obvious in how independence has been framed.

The general tenor is that the only things holding us back is a lack of boldness by leadership, the lack of wheezes such as special elections, or the absence of confronting the UK Government with the numerous “mandates” of the SNP.

Never mind the lack of clear enduring majority support for independence or the non-existence of an independence offer which addresses the failings of 2014 and deals with today’s challenges.

One can criticise Ash Regan’s floating of an “independence thermometer” or her belief in a “voter empowerment mechanism” as a renamed “de facto referendum”, but the problem is deeper.

For starters, some actually think that floating such kites is at least offering some kind of independence strategy when previously there was none.

Sadly post-2014, independence has not faced the hard truths and the heavy lifting it needs to. Hence today’s debate is dominated by people citing the need to use the “mandate” in a way that is similar to how Westminster does its politics – when mandates are never fixed and legal entities, but living, flexible things.

Others get obsessed with processes (special elections) and even symbols (Alex Salmond and the Stone of Destiny).

Underlying all this – party, government, independence – for some people politics is an article of faith which does not have to bother with facts, reality and pluralist debate.

Any deviation from believing in the success of the SNP in office or independence as being self-evident is treated by this mindset as heresy.

This is a politics of true believers, ill-equipped to winning over the half of Scotland yet to be convinced by independence.

The SNP has to go with the grain of Scottish society to continue to be successful. One current tricky area for candidates is LGBT rights and equality.

Forbes consistently cannot bring herself to say the phrase when specifically asked or even use an equivalent term, instead talking about general rights. Despite this, a whole swathe of SNP figures are comfortable with such evasions to the dismay of many.

THE SNP’s relationship with the wider movement has grown more fraught the longer it has been in office. The SNP is a political party, it is not a movement. It has little understanding of movement politics beyond rhetorically claiming to speak for that wider constituency.

It was revealing when George Kerevan talked yesterday about “four generations” of pioneers and radicals who have supported Scottish statehood.

When he gets to the most recent, he cites people who were or are exclusively SNP senior party politicians.

This is the generation he thinks campaigned and nearly won an indyref.

It is completely missing anyone not in the SNP – like Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialists, Women for Independence, National Collective, Common Weal ... the list goes on.

This exclusionary, top-down politics are part of the problem. This is a generational politics, as Kerevan rightly says, but one ignoring other voices.

Alongside a changing of the guard, there has to be a change in the content and tone of politics and independence.

Continuity independence on offer from Yousaf and populist opportunist independence from Regan is not much of a choice, and an economic and social conservatism from Forbes is not a vision for the future.

The language of the SNP and independence has to change and adapt to the world we live in.

Kerevan wrote that in “Scotland we are only on our knees because we refuse to stand up”.

Who on Earth believes that is an accurate, helpful description of present-day Scotland, and if it were, what does it say about the SNP’s 16 years in office?

Our Scottish debate about our collective future has to raise its ambition and connect to wider global conversations.

We have to talk and act on renewing centre-left politics with a radicalism beyond hollowed-out social democracy.

We have to rethink how government acts and delivers, given the pressures and expectations on it.

We need to understand the changing global capitalist order, the challenges of climate change and the energy revolution which will define much of the 21st century, alongside the power of international markets and finance capitalism.

Add to that the increasingly harsh geopolitical environment with no end in sight to the war in Ukraine and an increasingly assertive China, and we have some hard thinking to do to remake independence.

Independence has some advantages. It goes with the grain of society; it goes with the direction and dynamics of Scotland; and with the generational shift under way which sees people under 50 overwhelmingly in favour of independence.

As well as that the disastrous state of British government, state and politics is an everyday warning of what a politics of small-minded nasty nationalism of the British kind looks like.

Building on those foundation stones cannot be undertaken by the make-believe of continuity independence or the fairy tales of populist escapism; and nor does economic and social conservatism offer anything positive to the future.

Starting from an awareness of the shortcomings of these perspectives and the need for a deeper culture of independence to tackle the big questions and issues Scotland needs to address would be a start.

Maybe the SNP leadership contest will aid this, either by one of the candidates belatedly championing the above or more likely by default. If not spoken about, others may recognise and act upon these silences and evasions.

Scotland’s future is not just in the hands of the three candidates or the SNP but all of us, and maybe this contest will be a wake-up call pointing out that we need at the core of everything a new story for Scotland and for independence.