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If Boris Johnson is serious about living up to his chosen title as ‘Minister for the Union’, he faces an extraordinary challenge.

Not only must he steer what he dubs the ‘awesome foursome’ through the acute and immediate challenges of Brexit and a belated rise in separatist support. He needs also to combat the failing “more powers” orthodoxy which has brought the Union to its current parlous state – and articulate an alternative vision to replace it.

Since the advent of devolution in the 1990s, unionists have had one approach when it comes to the separatists: keep making concessions and hope that, at some point, the ‘new United Kingdom’ is enough for the SNP.

It has not worked. Devolution promised, from a unionist perspective, to “kill nationalism stone dead”. Moving power was supposed to assuage separatist feeling and even deliver better government. It has instead created whole political ecosystems which derive salaries, sinecures, and status from the new institutions, and gear themselves towards manufacturing support for and then constantly pressing one demand: “more powers”.

Should this process be allowed to continue, the destination is almost certainly the eventual dissolution of the United Kingdom. It shares with the example of the European Union the dynamic of politicians shifting blame onto it to distract from local problems, but whereas we spent decades more tightly integrating with Europe – thus making departure a complex and difficult business – we have spent that same time unpicking the UK.

We have now genuinely reached a point where even some ‘pro-Union’ politicians argue that the UK, a country, be less closely integrated than the EU. That is the implication of the Government’s retreat over ‘post-Brexit devolved powers’, which saw devolved politicians and their parliamentary confederates insist that powers which have until now been pooled in Brussels cannot be pooled in London. Johnson must forcefully reject such reasoning.

So, what form should a full-throated Government fightback take? It needs to have short-term, medium-term, and long-term elements.

In the short term, the Prime Minister must immediately begin working on strategies for victory for potential referendums in either Scotland or Northern Ireland during the 2020s. Research must be commissioned and acted upon, data and other campaign essentials built up, messages and messengers tested.

In the medium-term, the Government must set itself to better integrating the United Kingdom and making the Union harder to pick apart. Ministers’ first-hand experiences of trying to unpick the European Union ought to have given them plenty of ideas. This effort must be given institutional life, at the very least as a dedicated Cabinet Office unit, and every department should be required to cooperate with it and contribute to a government-wide Union strategy.

(Suffice to say the maintenance of pan-UK institutions also means maintaining the Conservative Party as a country-wide political force and rejecting a split.)

The long-term challenge is the hardest, but the most important: the PM must try to start the revival of the British nation. Talk about the ‘awesome foursome’ and ‘our union of nations’ is all very well, but it ignores the crucial idea that Britain is itself a nation too. That is why so many people (but not enough) identify, either partly or indeed wholly, as ‘British’.

A British state will not survive without a British nation to underpin it. Political consent for the realities of union, be that pooled decision-making or fiscal transfers, depends upon a sense of fellow-feeling between all its citizens. Without it, any case for the United Kingdom will be entirely mercenary, and contingent upon economic circumstances which will eventually change. Just ask the Stronger In campaign how that goes.

The good news is that all of these campaigns can support the other. Affection for Britain is withering in part because the British dimension of political and cultural life has dwindled. If these trends are to be reversed, they can, and perhaps must, be reversed in tandem.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. Image licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.