MICHAEL Gove, I would surmise, is an admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan. At the very least, he frequently divines a source of innocent merriment from partisan combat in the Commons.

However, let us turn aside from The Mikado and consider Iolanthe. There, we are told in satirical song that the House of Lords “did nothing in particular and did it very well”, during a crisis.

In Glasgow this week, Mr Gove seemed to be following that model. Asked repeatedly by the media about indyref2, the Minister for Saving the Union essayed so many shimmies and sidesteps one would have thought he was auditioning for Strictly.

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His mantra was that the entire focus now should be upon pandemic recovery. Nobody with electoral support disputes that. Still, this too will pass and the constitutional conundrum will remain.

Mr Gove, of course, understands that very well. I was struck by one phrase used by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (to give him his proper, if Gilbertian, title.) He said there had been, previously, “a period of devolve and forget”. No more, apparently.

So what, exactly, can the proponents of Union do to counter the demand for independence? Why should the Union survive?

To be clear, there are big questions confronting the advocates of independence too. The currency, the deficit, the border, especially if Scotland were to rejoin the EU. Nicola Sturgeon says these issues would be addressed in a new White Paper prior to indyref2.

Her opponents will continue, quite rightly, to raise such topics now. However, they know there are gaps in their own armoury. Just what is the continuing role and status of devolved Scotland in a reformed UK?

The Queen’s Speech this week was a model of inchoate vacuity on this topic, as is so often the case. Apparently, Her Majesty’s loyal government will strengthen economic ties across the Union.

To be fair, there was mention of this from Michael Gove. The UK Government planned links with Scottish councils and civic society to work on common projects. He scorned talk that this was by-passing Scottish Ministers.

However, Mr Gove knows this is very far from sufficient. Sticking a Union Jack on a transport scheme reminds me of the EU badging the initiatives they funded. It will not be enough to get Scots saying: sorry, Nicola, UK OK.

So what do Unionists do?

Thwarting a referendum will not cut it, not for ever. If anything, as the pandemic passes, an obstructive UK stance on the issue of testing opinion is likely to increase support for independence, rather than diminish it.

Supporters of the Union know this. They are, in essence, playing for time. As is Nicola Sturgeon, who wants to defer the choice for now.

What, then? In the past, there have been umpteen efforts to discern British values which might straddle the border. John Major had a go in 1993, citing such factors as “long shadows on county grounds” together with “warm beer” and “dog lovers”. Quoting George Orwell, he even summoned up “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”.

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Evocative, I grant you. However, Orwell was talking about England and so, in effect, was John Major, in a speech designed to convince Euro-sceptics in his own party that the British character could survive the EU.

Gordon Brown picked up the baton in 2007, offering “a distinctive set of British values”. These included “British tolerance, the British belief in liberty and the British sense of fair play”. He too mentioned Orwell.

Snag is these values are not exclusively British. Are we saying the French do not believe in liberté? Nor does Mr Brown’s list necessitate a Union in these islands. Scotland could be tolerant, fair, free – and independent. Little more was heard of Mr Brown’s initiative.

Should advocates of the Union, then, try reforming governance in England, to reshape the Union? Some believe that devolution to English regions, and more powers for directly elected mayors, would ease asymmetry in the UK and thus ease tension.

There may be a case for devolving power to the regions of England. I admire the efforts of areas like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to strengthen their economies and their civic standing. However, the last time I checked, they were not signatories of the Treaty of Union.

Reforming local governance in England is just that, no more. It may or may not be useful in its own right. But it does not address in any way the demand for independence supported by half the Scottish population. Nor does it give a defence mechanism to the other half.

Should we then try federalism; retaining a UK Government but assigning comparable powers to regions or states below that level?

But who would federate? England and Scotland? Considering the respective populations, that would be like creating a new United States of America which was comprised, in its entirety, of California and Utah. Scarcely stable, I would suggest.

The English regions then? Impractical and imbalanced. Unless you give Tyneside, for example, the power to make laws, vary taxation and hold a governing executive to account, then the English regions do not remotely equate to Holyrood.

Unionists may comfort themselves with the thought that the UK state has proved resilient, despite decided challenges. However, they know that more is needed if they are to secure the realm they cherish.

Perhaps Gordon Brown’s latest thinking might be salient. He suggests enhancing Holyrood powers while creating pan-UK governance structures and, crucially, appealing to “Middle Scotland” which he characterises as those who are neither committed nationalists nor unswerving unionists.

Rather, they are patriotic Scots, who generally prefer Holyrood to Westminster but could be swayed to retain both.

En passant, I would quibble with the term “Middle Scotland”: it summons up Middle England, but with a different socio-economic meaning.

Still, I would expect the broad unionist approach, by this UK Government or the next, to resemble this or something very like it. A smooth wooing.

Will it work? We shall see. In politics and life, there are few certainties. As W.S. Gilbert reminded us, things are seldom what they seem.