THERE'S A scene in Lampedusa's The Leopard that seems to capture something of the crisis in modern unionism. The Italian nationalist Tancredi visits his uncle, the Prince of Salina, and explains that he's about to join Garibaldi in the mountains. The prince is concerned for his nephew's safety, but Tancredi assures him he's fighting for a good reason. "They will foist a republic on us," he explains. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
This, then, ought to be the guiding philosophy of unionists, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. Although "seismic", "game-changing" and a host of other superlatives do not quite capture what happened in the wee small hours of Friday May 6, one thing is certain: the status quo is no longer an option. Unionists have to wake up and smell the coffee; they must adapt or die, and for once there is a clear deadline: the independence referendum planned for around 2014.
The political scientist Michael Billig identified a phenomenon he called "banal nationalism", where nationhood is so deeply and subconsciously taken for granted that it does not require coherent articulation. But the same critique can be applied to the contrary constitutional position. Indeed, it is "banal unionism" which now pervades British political discourse, from Gordon Brown's woolly push for "Britishness", to David Cameron's bland assurances that he is Prime Minister "of the whole United Kingdom".
This is surely inadequate, and simply betrays the incoherence of Mr Cameron's constitutional narrative, or indeed the lack of any narrative at all. Despite a degree of legwork in opposition he has, in common with most UK governments, adopted a suck-it-and-see approach in office. So now the coalition takes one position on Wales (parity with Scotland), another on Northern Ireland (a consultation on corporation tax), and yet another for Scotland (some new powers). Such inconsistency allows Alex Salmond to challenge and exploit, not least over corporation tax. But if Mr Cameron is serious about campaigning "to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fibre I have", as he said in the wake of the election, then he and others need to start thinking holistically, strategically and, in the short term, tactically. The response from the Scotland Office over last week demonstrates that none of these things is presently the case.
Now that a referendum campaign is effectively under way, the Prime Minister needs to make the weather on this. First, he could initiate a UK-wide constitutional convention (royal commissions, as Harold Wilson quipped, take minutes and waste years), a genuinely cross-party exercise modelled on the Scottish Constitutional Convention and drawing on expertise, academic and political, as well as the views of civic society. The SNP would obviously be invited to participate, although of course they did not back in 1989.
But this should be no constitutional talking shop. As with those gatherings on The Mound in Edinburgh more than 20 years ago, the direction of travel should be implicit. We already live in a quasi-federal UK, following the ad hoc devolution of the late 1990s, so it makes sense to explore formalising this. And given that the coalition government has already conceded the principle of fiscal autonomy via the Scotland Bill and a consultation on devolving corporation tax to the Province, the notion of "fiscal autonomy-all-round" should also be added to the mix. Underpinning it all could be a new bill of rights or written constitution, in which Mr Cameron has already expressed an interest.
Such an exercise would enjoy the advantage of attracting wide political support. The Liberal Democrats remain, if quietly, a federalist party; figures in the Labour Party including Henry McLeish and George Foulkes have recently hinted at this direction; while even the Conservative Party has a federalist strand, most recently and ably articulated by David Melding, a Tory member of the Welsh Assembly, in his book Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020? The arguments are not new, but they need refining and re-invigorating.
So there is common ground here. Nationalists have successfully depicted unionism as inflexible and reactionary, when in fact it has always been pragmatic and (at least occasionally) pro-active. Mr Cameron could rightly argue that constitutional reform is too big for any one party to tackle, while in Scotland the convention would be a visible and sensible extension of his much-vaunted "respect agenda". It could also dovetail, conveniently, with long-overdue House of Lords reform, while silencing what Iain McLean called the "two mad men in the attic", the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula.
Timing is also key. Given that it will be at least three years, perhaps four, until Mr Salmond chooses to hold his referendum (curiously, he recently argued the timing would be "entirely" up to the Scottish people), the convention has plenty of time for deliberation, concluding in time to present a package of measures to the electorate at the 2015 general election. Not only that, but if there is to be a third question on the referendum ballot paper, then a concrete proposition will finally be available which is neither independence nor the status quo.
This leads into the second key element of the "new unionism", the need for positive arguments. Mr Salmond now has a monopoly on positiveness and has been incredibly successful at making unionists sound negative and defensive. No longer are slogans such as "divorce is an expensive business" and "stronger together, weaker apart" fit for purpose. Any arguments have to be for the Union, not against independence. Mr Cameron seems to understand this, telling MPs last week that the case needs to be "uplifting and optimistic".
Positive messaging, of course, needs articulate exponents, and that's where the third strand of the New unionism comes in. Unionists in all parties should start planning now for a joint campaign. Although the initiative for this, arguably, ought to come from the unionist parties in Scotland and Wales, there is also a major role for Mr Cameron, whose public trust has risen over the past year (although perhaps not in Scotland).
The columnist Alan Cochrane has already proposed a "heavy-hitting group of men and women who are committed, to the very depths of their beings, to maintaining the United Kingdom" (although I would take issue with "as presently constituted"). The Prime Minister seems to agree, telling the Commons that "everyone in this House who believes in the United Kingdom and the future of the United Kingdom should join together and make sure that we fight off the threat of the idea of breaking up our United Kingdom".
The real battleground, however, lies beyond Westminster, and its leaders would have to be respected Scots able and willing to tackle Mr Salmond head-on. There are senior figures in all three "unionist parties" who would be more than up to the job (Charles Kennedy take note). One of the most impressive features of the recent election campaign was the sheer range of voices the SNP leader gathered in his support, but it's important to remember that most supported only Mr Salmond as First Minister, not independence, and in many cases not even the SNP.
Voters are impressed by a united front; and an articulate, positive united front in favour of the United Kingdom ought to be a formidable political force. But it needs to be tied to real constitutional reform, coherently thought through and lucidly espoused. It will also need hard graft and commitment from all of those involved, not least the Prime Minister. There has, for obvious reasons, been an unwillingness in London to spend too much political capital on Scotland, but that has to change if Mr Cameron is serious about not presiding over the break-up of the UK.
Polls may consistently show support for Scottish independence hovering at around 30 per cent, but public opinion can change. Unionists, for the moment, still outnumber nationalists, even in Scotland. And although Mr Salmond has yet to identify the problem to which independence is the answer, unionists of whatever political hue do not have the indulgence of complacency. Unionists, in short, are going to have to learn to live dangerously.