ON St George's Day in the run-up to the election, George Osborne stood with a St George's Cross flag and launched the Conservative English manifesto.

It's not a flag I feel any attachment to, nor one that I can remember ever having waved. I have never once celebrated St George's Day. But I am English. I say that to people from time to time, not really sure any longer what it means, feeling that it's just some loose label, a random bit of my history, and not really who I am.

In recent weeks there seems to have been a rise in English national feeling. Perhaps it is wrong to call it nationalist, though at times a fevered xenophobia has seemed to bubble to the surface. Many said that David Cameron and the Conservative Party were stoking it. According to Paul Kingsnorth, author of Real England, the Prime Minister has "done very well at harnessing a belligerent Englishness that is scared of the SNP and is scared of Europe".

Commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author of Exotic England, a book about the multicultural nature and openness of England, was troubled by the surge in nationalism during the General Election. "I was quite staggered by the very deep anti-Scots feelings that emerged," she says. "I found that terrifying. I remember saying to Michael Gove on Question Time, 'The way you're talking, it's all xenophobic. These are people of the United Kingdom and not that long ago you were telling them they were that.'"

For many people, even in Scotland, the word "nationalism" remains troubling and divisive. We want to tiptoe around it, pretend, occasionally that it's not there, or that really it means hope, or democracy, or progressive politics. Say the word to English people, though, and the feelings are much more intense. Often when I mention the word "nationalist", people think I am suggesting something racist or xenophobic .

But we need to be able to talk about nationalism without getting hot under the collar. Paul Kingsnorth, who recently wrote a thought-provoking Guardian essay titled England's Uncertain Future, is keen to start a calm conversation on the subject, and "get beyond the silos that people put themselves into". By this he means the tendency among the traditional left to hear the words "Englishness" and "nationalism" and immediately think of the BNP or racism. "Whatever you personally feel and whatever your politics are," he says, "here's the country we live in. Here's its history and its culture. Here's the identification that a lot of people have with it. You have to take that seriously - otherwise it's just a sort of lack of respect."

He believes the debate about Englishness is opening up now, and one of the elements in this story about Englishness is the Ukip surge: a phenomenon which didn't surprise Prof Michael Kenny, who has been studying the rise of English feeling and politicised Englishness for many years. In his book, The Politics Of English Nationhood, he produced his own statistics-based analysis of the conditions which have meant that, in recent years, "what's been quite a long-standing tradition of cultural sentiment has become much more open to political expression". There had, he notes, been signs for some time of a "growing restiveness around English identity": a shift in the character and appeal of English identity from the 1990s onwards.

Research, he notes, has shown an increase in the number of people favouring an English identity over a British one. From the mid noughties, those people who identified with Englishness were more likely to be exorcised about Europe, and Eurosceptic. They also tended to be the most concerned about England's place within the Union. Kenny believes that in the run-up to the election the Conservatives spotted this and "grabbed hold of" those feelings. "One of the interesting questions about the election result," he says, "is whether they succeeded in mobilising that anxiety about England and constitutional concerns with just enough voters in England, particularly possible Ukip voters, and whether that helped them get over the line."

The sense of Englishness, he notes, is most intense among what Kenny describes as "the squeezed middle", and least strong in metropolitan London, though it is rising even there. Indeed, in this election it was the Labour Party who lost votes to Ukip, particularly in the north of England. However, as Kenny points out, that shift was not all due to national values. Part of it stemmed from "a longstanding perception among some sections of the working class that Labour no longer speaks for them". They feel left behind.

Either way, the issue of a politicised Englishness is a pertinent one, and one that many are saying the left needs to tackle. Till now the major parties of the left have consistently steered clear of it, putting "all their eggs in the progressive Britishness basket", according to Kenny.

But this is more complicated than a straightforward story of left and right. Paul Kingsnorth is among those who believe this is about people feeling unspoken for. Ukip voters, he notes, have a sense that "this is our identity, and nobody is listening to us". It is something he has seen "building up" for a long time. "In the 2009 European elections the BNP managed to get a million votes, which was astonishing. The BNP obviously aren't like Ukip, they're a very proper far-right party, from a proper fascist background. And it was disturbing that there were a million people in Britain who were prepared to vote for them. I remember writing an article saying that if we don't start listening to the people who voted for the BNP - not the BNP themselves -find out their grievance, that vote is going to get bigger. And it did get bigger. Not with the BNP fortunately. But Ukip came along and because they're more palatable, they are more popular."

Kingsnorth also believes there are similarities, even though they appear very different, between the Ukip vote and the SNP vote. "I think in some ways this division between Scotland and England is a bit false," says Kingsnorth, "because the people voting for Ukip are in some way saying the same things as people voting for the SNP. They're different parties. They stand for different things, but it's this feeling of: 'Who are these people running the country? Who are these professional politicians? Who are these urban middle-class liberals? They don't speak for us.' You can be in Essex, North Wales, Northumberland or on the west coast of Cumbria and you can have that feeling just as much as you might somewhere in Scotland. For me it's the same sense."

Musician Billy Bragg, a progressive English nationalist, agrees: "There was clearly a vote for doing things differently to the way they've been done at Westminster - whether you see that in a vote for the SNP or the votes for Ukip and the Greens. I think that's an anti-Westminster vote rather than strictly a nationalist vote." Bragg has long been broadly supportive of the move towards independence in Scotland. "I don't see the move to nationalism in Scotland as a move to an insular type of nationalism," he says. "I think what's happening in Scotland is a response to globalisation and the sense that power is disappearing away from nations. That to me is what is driving the civic nationalism."

Though Bragg has long been a pioneer of English progressive patriotism, he remains a fairly lone voice. "The left," he notes, "have never been able to really engage in nationalism. There are people on the left who can't tell the difference, or pretend they can't tell the difference, between the BNP and the SNP. That's ridiculous. Obviously these people have never heard of national liberation movements like the Sandanistas."

Bragg believes there is a movement for a more civic, progressive nationalism, but that it is only "developing piecemeal". Having worked with the National Collective here in Scotland, he thinks England needs an equivalent collective, asking the same questions, exploring similar issues. What he believes is lacking are the right civic institutions, symbols and stories that allow people to imagine themselves part of a community. "In Edinburgh there's the fabulous Museum of Scotland which explains Scotland's story. There's no Museum of England. If you want to learn the story of our nation it's all over the place. If you go to the British Museum, you've got to find it between the Egyptians and the Assyrians."

Most people, even strongly patriotic types, acknowledge that there is something about identity that is porous and shifting. Englishness, says Bragg, is "amorphous". "The good thing about identity," he says, "is it's fluid. It's not like a piece of granite that never changes."

I believe the reason for that fluidity is that the desire for belonging is at the heart of it. Over the past few years, perhaps because of the referendum, perhaps because of where I was in my own life, I started to develop an interest in, and a craving for, belonging, here in Scotland. But I'm suspicious of the desire to convert that into feelings of national identity or even attachment. It seems to me real belonging does not take place on the grand scale of nationhood. It's a smaller thing. It's in the community; in the people we meet on a daily basis, with whom we share more than a connectedness of media, politics and culture.

In recent times, Englishness and the politics of English nationhood have been a preoccupation mainly of the right, but there is no reason the left could not take on this narrative. "It would be a mistake," says Michael Kenny, "to assume that it can only be the right and will only be the right that benefits." Certainly many of those I spoke to who expressed feelings of Englishness, or acknowledged their rise, were not on the right. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talks of "a form of nationalism that is absolutely lovely, and I think welcome. [People] have discovered that they can be English, that they can have that national identity".

Meanwhile Paul Kingsnorth believes that if the traditional left wants a future in England, it needs to start listening to "this English narrative" and taking English identity seriously. "The left in England has this very strange sort of Anglophobia. 'Englishness is contemptible, Englishness is racist, Englishness is xenophobic or reactionary. We should be internationalist and multi-cultural.' But you can't abolish someone's identity like that. People have a sense of who they are. They need that."

Here in Scotland, the debate over Englishness is an opportunity to re-look at what is good and bad about our own nationalism. If we think it's so good, why wouldn't we wish others to develop it? And if we're worried about other nationalisms, shouldn't be worried about our own? One of the things that struck me in talking to English people was that very often those who celebrated their Englishness said similar things to those I hear in Scotland. They spoke of an Englishness that was open and welcoming.

Yet one fact remains clear. Few people are entirely comfortable with the idea, or word, "nationalism". Few don't feel some apprehension around its history. "I dislike nationalism," says Paul Kingsnorth. "I feel attached to a nation, but I dislike nationalism. I can listen to English nationalists going on about Englishness and feel quite repulsed by it. And actually I can feel repulsed by Scottish nationalism." Yet he also says that without an "identity based on a place and culture then you are just washed around on a tide of capital".

Michael Kenny believes English nationalism is not yet a significant force. The temperature of the debate on Englishness nevertheless seems to be rising, and it seems inevitable that parties on the left and right will need to tackle this issue. How they, and the media, do so, how they shape the debate, will go some way to determining its character. Given that the UK is likely to move in a more federal direction, says Kenny, "the whole question of who speaks to the English national sentiment and who speaks for England is going to become an urgent political question. It is likely to become more prescient for the left. We're going to see a much more overt discussion of English identity."

Do we need to fear English nationalism any more than we do Scottish nationalism? Are they so very different? Is one more civic and inclusive, the other more motivated by the exclusivity of race and ancestry? Edinburgh University's Prof Ailsa Henderson has studied identity and politics on both sides of the Border and notes: "I don't think English nationalism is more ethnic than Scottish, or vice versa." Both have civic and ethnic elements, she believes. "So, no, I don't think that English nationalism is the ethnic foil to Scotland's civic nationalism."

There are many types of nationalism. There is cultural nationalism, ethnic nationalism, civic nationalism, progressive nationalism, angry, racist xenophobic nationalism, inclusive nationalism. One of the questions is whether when you invite one in, some of the less savoury strands climb on board too. That is a question for all of us, whether in Scotland or England. We all need to be wary. What begins as an attachment to place and people should not be allowed to turn to hate.