WITH momentum continuing to trend in favour of independence, it came as no surprise on Wednesday to see Labour and Conservative MPs join forces once again to stop Scotland’s voice from being heard. Brexit chaos, prime ministerial departures. soaring prices, Covid hypocrisy, corruption scandals … there is nothing the Tory Party can do heinous enough to discourage Keir Starmer from standing shoulder to shoulder with it against Scotland.

You might think the Labour leader’s top priority in these dark days would be to do everything possible to kick Rishi Sunak out of 10 Downing Street and rescue the most vulnerable from deepening poverty and encroaching disaster.

But no. He would far rather work with the architects of economic catastrophe than consider the possibility that he has more in common politically with the SNP and could enlist its help to rid Westminster of the scourge of the current right-wing crazy bunch.

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This week Starmer proudly boasted he is “tattooing on his forehead” that Labour would never do a deal with the SNP, so determined is he that Scotland will not have the opportunity to even have a say in whether it should have a say in its future.

This, of course, is part of his strategy of what he considers to be piling the pressure on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to risk another five years of a Tory government at Westminster by using the next UK General Election as a de facto referendum on independence.

There are deep and significant flaws in this strategy, not least the fact that he has colluded with the Tories to give the First Minister no other democratic choice but to view a General Election as an opportunity to gauge support for a second independence referendum.

The National: RETRANSMITTING CORRECTING LOCATION...SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon leaving a polling station at Broomhouse Park Community Hall in Glasgow for the European Parliament elections. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 23, 2019. See PA story

Then there is the current popularity of Sturgeon (above) – widely regarded as the most impressive political leader in the UK – while Starmer’s popularity ratings languish in the doldrums. After Tory blunders and misfires, a recent poll saw Sunak chosen by 37% of voters as their preferred Prime Minister, while Starmer convinced just 29%, lower even than those who said they did not know who would do the best job – that is hardly a rousing commendation.

Nor are Labour’s membership figures. A column in The Guardian on Wednesday pointed out that the party’s current leader inherited 553,000 members. Since then, 18,000 have left. Today’s total is just 373,000.

The First Minister’s critics often take her to task for what they see as a cautious, managerial style which has meant slower progress towards independence than they would like. But say what you like about this approach, it allows Sturgeon to say with some justification that she has done everything in her power to hold indyref2 by next year at the latest and the fact that she is now running off-road is entirely down to the intransigence of Westminster’s pro-Union alliance.

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Since it became blindingly obvious that Brexit would be an even bigger mess than even its most pessimistic critic had forecast, the First Minister refused to walk away from the negotiating table, continuing to seek a constructive way ahead for Scotland in the face of insulting dismissals from the bewildering succession of Prime Ministers.

Scottish voters are only too aware that it is Sunak himself who is risking the return of another Tory government by refusing to acknowledge our country’s democratically expressed desire for another referendum. The prospect of more misery and suffering, of an even more racist immigration policy, a widening of what is already one of the biggest gaps between the rich and poor in Europe … all this ranks lower in the Labour leader’s list of priorities than recognising the SNP as the party in which Scotland has placed its faith.

Labour’s tribal resentment at being banished from power in Scotland is so deeply entrenched that they refuse to countenance working together for the common good.

This is despite a run of recent opinion polls since the Supreme Court’s decision that the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal authority to hold an independence referendum. The last five polls have shown a majority for independence.

The National: LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: An exterior view of the Supreme Court on September 13, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images).

Why the surge in support for independence? Well, it’s not entirely down a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision, according to Fraser McMillan from the organisation who carried out the latest poll from YouGov, the Scottish Election Study’s Scottish Opinion Monitor (Scoop).

McMillan wrote a blog post to accompany the research explaining what the data shows the team about support for Scottish independence.

The researchers said: “While it might be tempting to attribute this to the court judgment itself, the results suggest that support for independence had already climbed and can likely be explained by comparative perceptions of UK and Scottish Government performance.” Scotland’s relatively high opinion of the actions of its Holyrood government should be confirmed by the Budget set out by John Swinney yesterday. It faced down threats by some high-profile high earners to move south of the Border if income tax were increased.

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Swinney said yesterday that the Budget would mean anyone in Scotland earning more than £43,662 will have to pay more tax next year. The higher rate of tax increase will increase from 41p to 42p in the pound and the top rate from 46p to 47p.

Swinney’s self-proclaimed rejection of “the path of austerity” should be welcomed by the Labour Party as a move to shoulder more of the tax burden onto the shoulders of those better able to afford it and off the shoulders of those in the most difficulty.

The Deputy First Minister said: “We have chosen a progressive path instead. To invest in our people, to invest in our economy and to invest in our public services.”

It was hardly surprising that Conservative MSPs chose to focus instead on the fact that higher and middle earners in Scotland will pay more tax than those south of the Border, which is kind of the point of devolution. There’s not much point in having even very limited powers to act differently in Scotland to the rest of the UK if they are never used.

The majority who will escape punishing rises will be grateful that the Scottish Government isn’t afraid to embrace different priorities than those which hold Westminster in thrall and will no doubt increasingly wonder what else it could do to ease suffering if it had the powers that only independence could give it.

But if the Tory response was predictable, Labour’s was baffling. In a normal world, they would welcome if not the exact detail of yesterday’s Budget, then at least the principle behind it. But under Starmer’s leadership, the party has drifted so far away from its founding principles that it would rather stop its MPs visiting picket lines than join with progressive forces to stop the Tories dismantling the welfare state and making life almost impossible for low earners. In Scotland, Labour are more interested in setting traps for Sturgeon which will allow them to blame her for a return of the Tories to power in a likely General Election towards the end of 2024.

Let’s tell the truth here. It is the SNP’s job, as the governing party in Scotland, to use whatever power is at their disposable to give Scotland the chance to decide the future it wants for itself. It’s the Labour Party’s job, as the official opposition at Westminster, to do what it takes to get rid of the most right-wing and the most incompetent UK Government for decades. If that means making some sort of arrangement with the SNP, then surely that’s a deal worth making.

If they think otherwise, the consequences are on Starmer’s head and not Sturgeon’s.