AND I thought Gaviscon was the middle-aged man’s drug of choice. Either on the cusp of being rumbled in a Sunday red top, or trying to reboot his human suit, Michael Gove has decided to get out in front of the story, admitting to the Daily Mail this weekend that “I took drugs on several occasions at social events more than 20 years ago. At the time I was a young journalist. It was a mistake. I look back and I think, I wish I hadn’t done that.” Believe that bouncing barrel of humbug, and you’ll believe anything.

But you go in dread of the coming revelations. What next? Andrea Leadsom admits to a regrettable afternoon session in 1987, eyeballing shots of Dubonnet in the changing rooms at Wimbledon with Princess Anne? Matt Hancock’s moving account of a decade of his life lost to Calpol? Revelations of Dominic Raab’s brief dalliance with suppositories?

But all of this is – as predicted – a powerful distraction from the real issues which the next prime minister will face, and what kind of agenda and character might be best placed to track a course out of the contradictions which crushed Theresa May’s premiership. And when it comes to the big structural issues of holding the United Kingdom together, nobody seems to have any ideas.

In the past week, there have been a series of clunking interventions from some of the leading contenders to replace May, in their attempts to win over the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. The formulation is rote. The Union, they say, is “precious”. But why? What precisely do they value about it? There is no reason why Unionism needs to be an impoverished and unnuanced political creed. There is a rich political tradition here, which isn’t all Lambeg drums and Crimplene marches in July. But the Conservative leadership race is turning into an object lesson in the inability of almost any of the candidates to talk about the component nations of modern Britain without gaffe or blunder. When the noisiest proponents of the Union are unable to make the best arguments for the Union, something curious is going on. Think of it as the lost art of being better together.

In 1992, in his Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation, David McCrone argued that “by the late 1980s, Unionism as a political creed had grown thrawn and defensive and reduced to its most simple meaning of doing Westminster’s bidding”. Almost 30 years on, is the vision now any richer? How do any of the candidates envision pulling together countries which seem – increasingly – to be set on diverging political trajectories?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s profound solution to the deep structural alienations currently driving Britain apart is – moar flegs. The leadership contender told the BBC this week that he wants “to see the UK Government do more to explain the value of the Union, both here in Scotland and also in England”. And the form should that explanation take?

“One of the proudest things I’ve done as a minister,” Hancock claimed, was “making sure we got Union Jacks at the Edinburgh Festival. The Edinburgh Festival is not only Scotland’s biggest and best festival, it is the UK’s biggest and best festival. Those symbols are important, as is the hard policy of improving people’s lives”.

If you support independence, you can chortle at this pap without remorse. But if you are a reflective Unionist – and there are reflective Unionists – feeling Scottish and British, conscious of the precarity of the British state, alive to the strong headwinds of Brexit into which HMS Britannia is steering blindly, worried about its future – the way all the leading contenders to replace Theresa May are talking about Scotland would have me birling in my bed in the hours of darkness.

Standing in front of what he described as the “famous Adam Smith monument” in Edinburgh, Jeremy Hunt told us that “Adam Smith was just one of many examples of the brilliance of our precious Union, when the talents of the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England come together”. Adam Smith was born 16 years after the 1707 Union. Hunt’s baffling account of his genealogy might come as a surprise to the ghosts of his Fifer parents. Maybe Smith had a second cousin from Merthyr Tydfil and a maiden aunt in Lurgan. How the Union is responsible for his Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments is, shall we say, unclear.

But not content with this vapid non sequitur, the Foreign Secretary’s inspired solution to the fragmentation in British politics is to find “a Brexit that works for people in Culloden as well as Canary Warf, in Swansea as well as Surrey”.

I appreciate alliteration is a gateway drug, but either Hunt’s speechwriter is a third columnist in the pay of Peter Murrell, or the Foreign Secretary hadn’t the foggiest what cultural connotations Culloden is likely to throw up to the average Scottish voter. Watching it, the more thoughtful Scottish Tories must have wanted to cough up a pelvis.

The hard truth is, when it comes to the Union, the Conservative and Unionist Party have never been prepared to eshew short-term tactics in the interests of longer-term strategy. For decades, Tories and the Tory-leaning media have been geeing up English voters by selling them the story that Scotland is feather-bedded, and that English rate-payers get a raw deal out of our political compact, which sees students study north of the Border without fees, and sick Scots accessing prescriptions without charges, while the English have to pay through the nose.

This has echoes in all the other political triangulations which both of the main UK parties are implicated in, and the whirlwind they have now reaped as a consequence. If Labour and Conservative politicians tell you – incessantly, over decades – that immigrants are responsible for your economic challenges, for delays in accident and emergency wards, for crime and crumbling schools and dog-eared textbooks, if they tell you that European human rights law only benefits murderers, rapists and paedophiles, that “a Scot rarely opens his mouth in Parliament without simultaneously extending an outstretched palm” – eventually, people will believe you. And, given the opportunity, they will do something about it. All that’s surprising is that politicians find this surprising. Political stories have consequences – eventually.

In contrast with their self-conception as “the party of the Union”, the Conservatives have fostered precisely the disintegration they’re now desperately trying to forestall. For them to act surprised, now, when a majority of Conservative voters say they’re prepared to ditch Northern Ireland and Scotland in exchange for Brexit – is beyond rich. They’ve been “explaining the Union” to English voters for years. And now, when they try to recover an emotional language to reconstitute the Union project, they’re left with the desperately impoverished, desperately confused argument that “these people are fleecing you – but this pickpocketing is a precious tradition so please, just stick with it”.

British politics is currently obsessed with processes rather than outcomes. At the UK level, there are a tranche of radicalised Remainers – demanding another referendum on Britain’s departure from the EU – while showing no hint of half a clue about how to carry a second poll or to persuade the unpersuaded. In Scotland, there are pro-independence activists of the same cast of mind.

Less commented on is that the Scottish Tories’ procedural fixations with stopping a second independence referendum also represents a neat form of psychological evasion, a way of avoiding a serious confrontation in their own minds with what is left of their precious Union, or what arguments you could credibly make now for its continuation.

For the UK Tory leadership, you can’t help but feel that the invocations of this preciousness have become, like the verses of organised religion, something recited for form rather than out of any kind of deep commitment. An old memory of a dead ritual. The words, inert, formulaic, no heart left in them.