THE SNP special conference meets in Dundee this coming weekend. The background is not a happy one.

The party’s problems and drift have been gathering since Nicola Sturgeon’s surprise resignation as party leader and first minister on February 15 – four months ago.

Since then, the party has been trying to come to terms with the legacy of the Sturgeon era and its ensuing problems as it struggles to make sense of new realities. There are pro-Sturgeon believers and anti-Sturgeon folk; Sturgeon-era insiders, and those cast into the wilderness.

To add to this are some who still answer the call of Alex Salmond, along with those who see him as toxic and beyond the pale.

Despite the ongoing aftermath of recent events, the SNP has no option but to embrace change. It has to recognise that by standing still, believing its own hype, and continuing to be mesmerised by its own past, it will only experience reverse and let its opponents (namely Labour) define the political weather.

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None of the above responses so far gets to the core – that the SNP is a party without direction and purpose, with most party debates still being defined by the shibboleths of the previous era such as de facto referendums and other such supposed wheezes. The absence of any proper independence strategy, or work on one, leaves a party which is all consumed with holding power and winning elections which is never in the end enough with voters.

The SNP does not have a convincing current raison d’etre. It still has not grasped that its traditional modus operandi – Scottish nationalism – is not enough to win an indyref, and doing something about changing this.

In its 16 years in office, the party has hardly developed its thinking beyond the pragmatic, centrist social democracy it embodies which is little different from New Labour at its peak (minus the wars).

To add to this, post-2014 it has done negligible work on rethinking and representing independence, adapting it to circumstances to win those who need to be won, and integrating responses to the new conditions in the UK and globally which are harsher than a decade ago.

Moreover, the party’s lack of direction is aided by the current weak leadership of Humza Yousaf. That is hard to change, given that it is informed by 16 years of office and by being overshadowed by his predecessor.

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In fairness to Yousaf, like Rishi Sunak, many of his problems are not of his making but have been inherited – in his case by the limits of eight years of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, and the party’s inability to chart out a new direction breaking with her legacy.

Many in the SNP and independence movement still cling to the aura of Sturgeon as a leader, citing her election-winning and relative popularity even after eight years. For some this is about more, as they felt that Sturgeon gave expression and representation to a certain constituency. But it was cumulatively a problematic leadership, characterised by tactical considerations, accruing power to the top and shutting others out, and with no long-term substance or strategy.

In the history books a major factor in how Sturgeon is seen will be the conclusion of the police investigation and any resulting actions. But already part of the picture can be sketched.

We know that Sturgeon actively closed down party debates in key forums on finances, elections and accountability. We know that she poured scorn on any ideas other than those which chimed with her own, even from friendly voices.

Over the years, SNP members were prepared to bow to this, given Sturgeon’s track record of electoral success, but slowly the “leadership knows best” approach degenerated into an open contempt, belittling party opinions she did not value.

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The SNP’s challenges this coming weekend are to begin to emerge from the shadow of the Sturgeon years. They have to go back to basics.

Reasserting party processes. Putting in place structures to allow the next generation of the SNP and independence to emerge and flourish.

Democracy needs to be restored in the party. It needs to be nurtured and key overdue debates had which matter and have consequences.

Party members need to be listened to and respected and given their proper place, rather than told continually the leader knows best.

Democracy needs encouragement and championing across the country – in the Scottish Parliament, in local government, civil society and wider public life.

Independence needs to be understood not as process politics or a quick fix. Substance is what matters, and doing serious heavy lifting and detailed work on the meaning and consequences of independence. Eight years of not doing this post-2014 have come at a cost: independence is not in a winning position, with politics being reduced to a phoney war.

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Above all the SNP needs to jettison its defensive, unimaginative, conservative politics of post-2014; a politics which has little to say to the Scotland not yet convinced of independence – which is still around 50% of the nation.

Have the SNP contributed one original substantive thought on the many multiple crises of the present? On the inadequacies of Anglo-American capitalism; on the corporate over-reach and capture of so much of our lives; on the imbalances and insecurities of the global order, or on the nature and role of the British state? No.

The SNP don’t speak about political economy. It is not a defence to say “we don’t have the levers”.

The SNP mindset called “welfare nationalism” has an economic illiteracy at its heart. This, combined with the soft left’s retreat from the economy the world over in the Blair and Clinton eras, still has an influence over the party, as seen by the recent Growth Commission and Kate Forbes’s interventions.

The SNP’s future progress is hard to imagine without at least attempting to address the stormy waters all around and offer their own interpretation and set of solutions.

These include the nature of the British state as an outlier and advocate for corporate capitalism; the limits of the British economic model; the coming off the rails of five decades of economic orthodoxy and its shortcomings and illusions now apparent for all but the elites to acknowledge.

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The SNP need to develop a critical perspective on this, draw from, and aid emerging thinking and ideas in Scotland, the UK and globally, and place itself as an active participant in a network of alliances against the current global order.

It would use these to come up with a new vision of Scotland and independence relevant to the age of uncertainty, disruption and change we live in. It would speak to the Scotland of the future and the world of the future – rather than harking back to 2014 or Scotland pre-Thatcherism.

This would embrace new economic thinking, new ideas of prosperity, growth and wealth, challenge conventional ideas of business and corporate governance, and present a version of independence about co-operation, collaboration and interdependence. A world far removed from the mantra of “separatism”, 2014 or the romantic nationalisms of some on the Yes side and Brexit.

Scotland has the capacity to shape its own future and be part of a wider global conversation and struggle which breaks with the delusions and disinformation which have turned our lives and the planet upside down in recent decades.

Doing so requires a different politics from the SNP than that seen in recent times and requires drawing a line under the legacy of the Sturgeon era.

The SNP has to start the painful transition to a new language and way of doing politics.

It has to deal with the electoral challenge of Labour and potent message from the Scottish party that “voting Labour is the best way to get the Tories out of Downing Street.” Continual talk about “red Tories” are the old tunes and do not really help.

The party has to recognise that what aided its successes over the past 16 years no longer holds water, and that the laws of political gravity and wear and tear have finally kicked in, along with some serious mistakes.

Furthermore, the SNP will probably not be able to avoid tough times and reverses in 2024 and 2026 – but they need to start the hard thinking and change now.