Prime Minister Theresa May (right) and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meet at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Glasgow, to take part in a bilateral meeting during Mrs May's visit to Scotland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday March 27, 2017. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: RUSSELL CHEYNE/PA Wire Image Credit: AP

In the pivotal scene of Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’, the heroine Tatyana writes a disastrously counterproductive love letter to the aloof hero. Mistaking Onegin’s reserve for nobility of character, Tatyana throws herself upon him. The scene that follows is one of the most touching in all of European opera.

Britain leaving the European Union, set out in a letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk last week, can hardly be described as touching. Yet, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Theresa May is both an optimist and an idealist. Like Tatyana, she is prone to misread evidence and to prefer hope over experience. This is true of her approach to Europe. It is also true of the way she is trying to shape post-Brexit Britain.

Which of us, for instance, would not want Britain to be a more united country than it is today? Unity was a key rhetorical element in May’s Commons speech on Wednesday. Two days before she sent her fateful letter to the EU, the prime minister made a speech in Scotland that spelt this out even more explicitly. The words are worth noting because they are very ambitious. The government’s post-Brexit plan for Britain, she said in East Kilbride, “has at its heart one overarching goal: to build a more united nation”.

It is important to do May the credit of understanding that she really means this. She thinks, as she put it in Scotland, that she can get a good deal for Britain in the European negotiations while at the same time delivering for “ordinary working people at home”. She thinks she can bring people and communities together through measures that offer “integration and social cohesion”, while also strengthening the United Kingdom.

A more united nation, in other words, means a renewed social union across the economic divide and a strengthened political union across the home nations.

There was a time in Conservative party history when these were not controversial aspirations. No senior post-war Conservative of the pre-Margaret Thatcher era, with the important exception of Enoch Powell, would have hesitated before speaking in such terms. It was what that era understood by “one nation” conservatism. But Thatcher trashed these pieties. She preferred possessive individualism to a social compact, and she wrapped the party in a more Anglocentric version of Toryism. The party she left behind has struggled with that legacy ever since. It remains a defining constraint on many of May’s practical options.

None of these are potentially more explosive than the union itself. May’s commitment to the union of the United Kingdom is beyond dispute. She is not a Tory who flirts with the idea of letting Scotland loose, as a means of securing Conservative rule more strongly in what remains of the UK. May talks of the “beloved union”. We should assume she means it.

May is now committed to maintaining the union by getting a Brexit deal she can sell in Scotland. Both parts of this plan are highly ambitious. The two together is more ambitious still. On the first part, there were opaque suggestions last week that May is prepared to compromise more than previously hinted on single market and customs union access, and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, has suggested a more open approach on EU migration.

Huge ask

Nevertheless, even if May secured a softer Brexit than she has yet let on, she also has to sell that deal in Scotland over the objections of a Scottish parliament that has now voted for a second independence referendum.

That is a huge ask. The SNP could hardly have been clearer that it opposes May’s approach, wants Scotland to have its own special deal with the EU, and is squeezing the last drop of grievance out of May’s refusal to make an agreement with the Scottish government before triggering Article 50 last week.

Although SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon does not want to be bounced prematurely into a second referendum she may lose, she is being inexorably pushed into one, thanks to a combination of pressure from her party and May’s stubborn determination not to make early concessions to the Scots’ case. Last week’s vote at Holyrood makes it even harder for Sturgeon to back down, even if she wants to.

The Tory brand in Scotland is not as toxic as it once was, at the height of post-Thatcher anger. Its ecumenical leader, Ruth Davidson, has led the party back into second place. But English Toryism can still be lethal in Scotland. With the SNP framing every question as a choice between “Scotland” (ie the nationalists) and “the Tories” (ie May and perhaps the English in general), it is hard for an English Tory prime minister in London to win a hearing — much less an argument — against Sturgeon and the SNP.

Yet that is seemingly the course on which May is now embarked. After last week’s Holyrood vote, the SNP can now only realistically abort the second referendum if May produces a Brexit deal the SNP can embrace. Government sources put it graphically but in a way guaranteed to rile the SNP: “Nicola has climbed a tall tree and got stuck. It’s our task to find ways to help her down.”

That’s not inconceivable, because substantial powers on farming and fishing are about to be repatriated from Brussels, and could then be devolved to Holyrood. Gordon Brown has recently added environmental regulation to that list, along with VAT powers and about £800 million (Dh3.12 billion) currently spent by the EU in Scotland. These are important issues and an SNP that wanted a reason to postpone a referendum could conceivably parade them as a prize worth taking as an alternative.

Yet it is hard not to feel things have already gone too far, that Sturgeon and May have set a wheel of fire rolling that they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. It’s possible that May believes Sturgeon needs to be drawn into battle on a soft Brexit amid continuing anxieties about the economic case for independence because, in May’s view, the sooner the SNP’s bluff is called, the greater the possibility that a non-nationalist government can take over in Edinburgh after the 2021 Scottish elections. Which is all fine if you are convinced, first, that Scots will like a soft Brexit when they voted for no Brexit at all; second, that May and Davidson have the reach and tonal command to out-argue Sturgeon and the SNP; third, that Scots, even though maybe not voting in such large numbers as they did in 2014, are willing to inflict an immense electoral defeat on the nationalists; and, fourth, that you have a strategy in place, perhaps even a federal settlement of the sort Brown now advocates, to cope with the anger that such a defeat would trigger.

Perhaps May and Davidson really have got all this worked out. Perhaps May really loves devolution and federalism more than she, a great centraliser, has ever hinted. But if they haven’t, the alternative is the break-up of the “beloved union”. Either way, the stakes could hardly be higher for the UK. From now on, everything that happens on Article 50 matters not just for the UK in Europe, but for the very future of the UK itself.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music.