It was Machiavelli’s 16th-century treatise “The Prince” that established the political principle that the end justifies the means.

“He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done,” wrote the Italian diplomat, “sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.” Elsewhere, there is this: “The prince must be a lion, but he must also know how to play the fox.”

As we approach the end of 2015 lines such as these strike me as pertinent, both in relation to the next Holyrood elections and the independence debate.

It was, unquestionably, the SNP’s year, its canny ownership of referendum defeat giving way to an electoral tsunami in May and the emergence of Nicola Sturgeon as the UK’s best-known non-Westminster politician. Yet rarely has such political success rested upon so little.

It’s been a ready political (and journalistic) refrain since the General Election that Scotland “will never be the same again”, yet the same again is precisely what it ended up being. In 2015 there was nothing to write home about in terms of health, education or the economy, yet the SNP was rewarded with poll ratings befitting Franklin D Roosevelt at the height of the New Deal.

But that, of course, was the old politics. During the past 12 months, Scotland and the rest of the Western world witnessed the rise of identity politics rather than electoral contests based on bread-and-butter issues. The former SNP spin doctor Kevin Pringle captured it well in writing yesterday that his old party had “cornered the market in defining, articulating and promoting a Scottish national interest”.

In the context of Scottish politics, this was nothing new: over the past century every major party – Liberal, Tory and Labour – has claimed to “stand up for Scotland” while pursuing much the same political orthodoxy, although naturally that changed every few decades or so. The end justified the means.

And while that’s made for a superficially eventful year (and indeed decade) in Scottish politics, it’s disguised the uncomfortable reality that nothing very much has changed on the ground. Partly this is because the frame of reference in which the SNP and its principal opponents operate is astonishingly narrow: keeping major taxes low, freezing council tax, trying to stimulate economic growth via state intervention, and so on.

As Kevin Pringle identified, the dominance of a highly-disciplined party also restricts the policy agenda; thus his call for the SNP’s policy forums to be “reinvigorated” (they generally stagnated under Alex Salmond’s quarter-century leadership) so that “more ideas are generated”. The Scottish Government’s recent Budget was a case in point: despite having genuine options when it came to income tax and reforming council tax, John Swinney erred on the side of caution. The end (another SNP majority), once again, justified the means (cautious inactivity).

In “The Prince” Machiavelli cited the precedent of Roman emperors, observing that they “had to choose between satisfying the soldiers and satisfying the people” and the Budget was proof the SNP continues to prioritize the latter over its foot-soldiers who, as ever, are proving themselves remarkably tolerant.

Take Scotland’s cultural community, many of whom invested a huge amount of time and energy into promoting a Yes vote in September last year. The arts budget, however, was cut by £16 million, and when I and a few others on Twitter made the perfectly reasonable observation that they didn’t seem to be making much noise about it, several arts figures then spent rather more time criticising us than they had the Scottish Government.

This betrayed a wider phenomenon that characterised 2015, a certain reticence when it comes to dissent, and I mean specifically dissent from within the independence movement. But having created an atmosphere in which criticism (largely from the “mainstream media” or Labour) isn’t exactly tolerated, internal critics naturally find themselves in a difficult position.

Some have nevertheless chosen to do so and face the consequences; thus my heroes of the past year have been former Scottish Government policy chief Alex Bell, the rapper Loki and, most recently, Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism activist Jordan Daly. And since no one (certainly not the SNP) has bothered to adequately critique any of their criticisms, one can only reach the conclusion they all had a point.

Again, the end justifies the means, and if internal (as well as external) critics need to be ignored or delegitimised then so be it. Some Nationalists I speak to believe Ms Sturgeon is simply awaiting her own mandate before pursuing a more radical agenda, but the trouble is I’ve heard it all before: back in 2003 some believed the same of Jack McConnell, while a similar expectation preceded the SNP’s overall majority in 2011 and Ms Sturgeon succeeding Alex Salmond in November 2014. It’s little more than political manana.

But even when the First Minister wins her own mandate next year, Scottish politics will then be dominated by the expectation of another independence referendum in 2020-21, the winning of which will require further “safety first” politics. And so I suspect it will go on, endless talk of progressive politics; every election framed as a referendum on the Union or the Tories, skilled deflection and the same old middle management masquerading as radical action. And, as Machiavelli predicted, those wishing to deceive “will never fail to find willing dupes”.

Over Christmas I read Ronan Fanning’s lucid new biography of Eamon de Valera (who studied Machiavelli closely) and was struck by his observation that it took until 1951 – three decades after Irish independence – for political discourse to veer “away from the meaning of independence to the uses of independence”. Scotland isn’t at that stage but still can’t have a mature conversation about how to use its ever-increasing powers 16 years after devolution.

To be clear, this isn’t me arguing #SNPbad (which gets my reluctant prize for hashtag of the year), but a wider point that also applies in Wales, where politics (as in Scotland) generally revolves around emotional marketing that promises change but then carefully neuters the resulting legislation. Just look at proposals for land and council tax reform in Scotland: anything remotely radical is strangled at birth.

Another phrase leapt out from the de Valera biography: that in 1959 “he left Irish society very much as he had found it”. The same applies to the Scotland of 2015 vis-a-vis the Scotland of 2007 or 2014, begging the question that, if Ms Sturgeon were to lose next May’s election (unlikely, I realise), what would she and her predecessor leave behind beyond buoyant poll ratings? But then, as Machiavelli also observed: “The best fortress you can have is in not being hated by your subjects.”

Now I think the First Minister differs from de Valera in genuinely viewing independence as a means to an end, but the means still require much greater attention during the year ahead. As de Valera put it back in 1921: “Whatever restrictions rules and regulations may impose, headship does give opportunity and it gives the power too, if one has the will and the energy.”