AT last we have had a hint of what an anti-independence campaign could look like second time round: the Ruth and Tony show.

It’s not a great look. By this I mean no knee-jerk disrespect to either: Ruth Davidson is an energetic, personable figure whose resignation from the leadership of the Scottish Tories has given her an aura of principle that wasn’t always apparent while she was in office. Tony Blair is the masterful vote-winner whose electoral track record proves that the surest route to success goes through the middle ground. The pair met secretly for 45 minutes last week to discuss a possible future referendum, two highly effective campaigners united in common cause.

But as key players in any anti-independence movement, a Tory and a controversial former Prime Minister? Now that’s a risky proposition for those who want to keep the UK together.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson and Tony Blair in secret talks about indyref2

In the absence of other obvious alternatives, Ruth Davidson is being discussed as a frontrunner to head up such a campaign, but there’s a problem: her party membership card. Last time, the Yes campaign branded all pro-union campaigners as Tories by association, part of a strategy of presenting independence as the progressive choice that was more in line with supposed Scottish values. It was cynical but surprisingly effective, helping Yes carve big chunks out of Labour’s vote. Installing Davidson as the campaign figurehead would only turbo-charge that attack.

As for Tony Blair, some look back wistfully on his years in office as a time when Britain was open, tolerant and much more united; others call him a war criminal. He’s hardly a unifying figure.

Mr Blair and Ms Davidson had a private chat; they didn’t tour the city together on an open-topped bus waving Union Jacks. The indications are that they didn’t want their meeting to be known. Neither is suggesting themselves as the figurehead of a future campaign. But as long as there is a vacuum where the anti-independence campaign should be, political self-starters like Ms Davidson and Mr Blair will fill it. They can see the writing on the wall, even if some of their former colleagues choose not to.

While independence is not inevitable, another referendum looks very much as if it is, and the ostrich act of Scottish politicians over so-called indyref2 is already starting to seem faintly ridiculous. When Theresa May told Nicola Sturgeon in 2017 that “now’s not the time”, she did so safely in the knowledge that Scottish public opinion was firmly on her side.

But support for a referendum in the near future has risen and if it creeps higher in anticipation of a harmful Brexit, the democratic argument for holding one will become unassailable. What looked like good politics for the pro-UK parties just a few months ago in refusing to discuss independence, is starting to look intransigent and even fearful.

READ MORE: Blocking Scottish independence referendum indefinitely is unsustainable, think tank warns

If by some miracle Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour emerged from a general election as the largest party, and needed SNP support, an independence referendum might happen much sooner than even Nicola Sturgeon anticipated. If not, the SNP’s preparations for a vote would busily continue through the period of a Holyrood election, in which they would be aiming for another pro-independence majority (which they would stand a good chance of getting). Either way, another referendum is probably on the cards. It is time for those parties that oppose independence to accept reality, or risk being caught in disarray while their opponents reap the benefits of years of planning.

You can forgive them for not wanting to contemplate the vote. They have the short straw, defending the existing order. Change seems sexier than the status quo, and if that was true last time, it is doubly so now. Left wing, pro-Remain pro-UK campaigners in the Liberal Democrats and Labour must feel nothing but weariness anticipating the inevitable attempts to portray them as apologists for Brexit and Boris Johnson. The pro-independence campaign will otherwise be relentlessly ebullient and upbeat; the pro-UK side risks being perceived as hopelessly negative by contrast. So what is the way forward for that campaign and who can front it?

Tone will be everything. In 2014, the pro-UK campaign woke up to this too late. The adoption of the slogan No Thanks, which had the benefit of sounding respectful but unconvinced, was a sign of realisation dawning, but the overall gloomy tone of the campaign was a turn-off contrasted with the optimism of the Yes side.

This time around if they are to have a hope of defending their win of last time, anti-independence campaigners will need to demonstrate a dramatic shift in thinking: they will have to acknowledge from the outset the validity of independence as a choice, and show empathy with voters who are contemplating it, instead of giving fire-and-brimstone lectures on the dangers of going it alone.

That independence will pile chaos on top of Brexit chaos is a view that may well have traction with key voters, but it cannot be the foundation of a winning campaign. It serves no purpose at all to pretend any more that independence is automatically worse than the alternative, when the alternative is Brexit Britain, led by Boris Johnson.

The argument can only be won for those that wish to preserve the UK by finding the key positives and persuading enough waverers that they outweigh the potential benefits of independence. A campaign that is friendly, relaxed, self-assured, respectful and gently persuasive is always going to be more effective than one that is doom-laden, adamant and irritable. Who wouldn’t rather spend time with Lorraine Kelly than Private Frazer?

As for who could front it? There is unlikely to be one single figurehead; after all, there was no single, unified anti-independence campaign at all last time because of Labour’s opposition to sharing a platform with the Tories. But youth and diversity will matter, something the other side does not lack. Ms Davidson will have her place, but so will young left-wingers like Labour’s Paul Sweeney. Well-meaning former prime ministers will have to be brought into line.

A second independence referendum will be difficult for those who want to preserve the UK, but pretending it’s not going to happen won’t help for very much longer.