KICKING sand in the face of the Tories is pretty well obligatory for a Labour leader. Most of the rest of us too!

However, Sir Keir Starmer used his New Year “greeting” and probably the opening shot in his election campaign to diss the Scottish Government as well.

Bracketing the SNP with the Conservatives takes a certain amount of chutzpah, otherwise known as twisting the facts to suit your narrative. Support for either was populist and divisive, he suggested.

The arch-populist in politics is one ­Donald John Trump, and it’s a fair bet Humza Yousaf’s worst enemy wouldn’t confuse the two.

READ MORE: Owen Jones: The Keir Starmer soundbite that sums up Labour's weakness

Being populist involves playing to the lowest common denominator of your ­following; chucking red meat to them like a butcher on acid.

Populist purveyors of quarter truths like Trump or Hungary’s Victor Orbán ­garner support by demonising migrants and ­generally failing to display anything ­resembling common humanity, decency or empathy. These are not nice men.

That they are divisive is hardly in doubt. The USA, as it limbers up for its own ­election, has rarely been more polarised, and Trump’s Republican Party is too feart of slaying the populist dragon to call him out as the bullying tyrant he is.

Just last week, a posse of former ­diplomats and ambassadors warned of the risks to the UK, never mind America, if the election-denying fraudster ever got near the White House again.

So yes, unchecked populism allied to a shaky relationship with the truth can ­indeed be divisive. But Starmer knows – because he’s been telt often enough – that is not the faultline in Scottish politics. He knows that the mass defection from ­Labour in 2015 was occasioned by his ­Scottish branch office refusing to contemplate ­independence.

And this is one political leopard whose spots remain unchanged on that issue. He has made it abundantly clear that he cares not that something like half the ­Scottish populace has concluded that the UK and Unionism are a busted flush. A ­proper ­democrat might think that worthy of ­consideration.

READ MORE: Labour won’t ever be an answer for Scots, it’s time to believe

Instead, he looks with longing at the polling in Scotland, licking his lips at the thought of doing a Hamilton and ­Rutherglen West in more seats, and, not at all incidentally, enhancing his chances of getting into Number 10.

For, in truth, that seems to be the sum total of his ambition these days. Gone are so many of the pledges he made when he was angling for the leadership – now the rallying cry is only doing ­anything ­affordable. Not so much a left-wing bang, as a mild-mannered, super-cautious ­whimper.

  • Abolishing tuition fees – scrapped
  • Taxing the very rich – scrapped
  • Banishing universal credit and ­sanctions – watered down
  • Green government – promised funding banished to the back burner
  • Taking Royal Mail, railways and water into public ownership – scrapped
  • Attacking tax avoidance – deafening ­silence
  • Investing in public services – welcoming the private sector into the NHS
  • No more illegal wars – depends on who’s waging them

The only firm promise remaining is to go for growth, a detail-free slogan thus far. Going for growth is a perfectly ­respectable ambition, but the how of it really matters. The last leader to prioritise growth was a certain Ms Liz Truss. Instead, she blew up the economy.

Yet the interesting thing about ­Starmer’s ditched pledges is that so many of them are already extant in Scotland. We have free tuition fees; water and ­railways are in public ownership.

While Starmer’s shadow ministers fret about asylum ­backlogs, our governments past and present have vocally welcomed the new blood we need.

Whilst Starmer (below) has set his face against restoring trade links with Europe or ­bidding to re-join the single market or ­customs union, Remain-voting Scotland has had to watch some of its most lucrative trade decimated by Brexit. According to Labour, all that is to be done is to try for a better Brexit deal. He doesn’t seem to recognise that Brexit itself is the problem.

The National:

There are no plans to involve the ­private sector in the Scottish NHS since we have seen how much of a race to the bottom that can become, most especially when big Pharma and health insurers are calling the shots. This is not to say our health service is not in need of reform, but we don’t currently have our “junior” doctors or our nurses on picket lines ­rather than in wards.

There are so many areas of our lives where the direction of travel could not be more unlike the kind of maybe jam the day after tomorrow approach of the ­current Labour leader. His would-be chancellor, as a former Bank of England economist, has, unsurprisingly, said she would be bound by its fiscal priorities.

And while Starmer and his shadow ­foreign secretary provide nothing more radical than an echo chamber for US foreign policy, our First Minister had the balls to call out the Israeli levelling of Gaza and the arming of settlers intent on ethnically cleansing the land they had ­appropriated illegally.

Nothing about either stance is ­antisemitic as Yousaf’s swift visit to a ­synagogue after the appalling attacks on October 7 illustrated. As so many have pointed out at the United Nations, ­being disgusted by Hamas’ violence and ­outraged at bombing children in ­retaliation are not mutually exclusive ­instincts.

If there ever was a fire in the Starmer belly, it has long since been extinguished. Or traded in for a kind of grey ­pragmatism which looks askance at any initiative which might be construed as bold, ­radical, or, perish the thought, overtly socialist.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, unveiled a campaign mock-up last week in which Rishi Sunak and Starmer were portrayed as the “socialist twins”. If only. Cue hysterical and hollow laughter from north of the Border – not even to mention those English cities and conurbations with Labour mayors.

If the latter are hoping for a brave new dawn, they had better not be remotely ­impatient. There is as much chance of Starmer being ever thought rash or ­radical as my making the Bobsleigh team at the next Winter Olympics.

THE main attraction of the Labour leader for some footsoldiers would appear to be that he is not Jeremy Corbyn (below). All traces of the bearded one have been airbrushed out of Labour history more effectively than ex-Soviet leaders missing on parade balconies.

The National: Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his stance on Scottish independence while appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe (PA)

In truth, I couldn’t see the British ­public ever considering Corbyn as a ­realistic choice for PM. And if they want a solid, stolid citizen devoid of anything as dangerous as an imagination, then Sir Keir probably fits that dispiriting bill.

For all that, I hope he wins the ­General Election if only because it’s ­difficult to see any administration being as ­comprehensively incompetent as the ­current Conservative one.

But I’d rather he did so without ­harnessing the support of the many ­millions of Scots who yearn for freedom not just from the Tories, but from the shoddy set-up of the Union. You wouldn’t have to be eagle-eyed to spot that the reform of that wounded specimen as ­advised by Gordon Brown is also among the pledges missing in action from any ­recent pronouncements.

READ MORE: Ruth Wishart: The safest choice for Scotland in a divided world is independence

As for the promised abolition of the House of Lords? Perhaps you missed the centenary of the first time that was ­promised. Don’t fret. It wasn’t a ­celebration. But it was an indication of just how likely it is that any new Labour administration will administer last rites.

They don’t plan to anyway. Instead, there is the thought of an elected house of the “nations and regions.” Baubles for the natives rather than fundamental reform. Haud me back.

As I’ve argued before, a revising ­chamber is not a bad idea. But a Scottish one scrutinising legislation coming before a Scottish independent parliament.