This column was written on the 11.30 a.m. train from King’s Cross to Waverley, a journey I take at least twice a month and adore.

Since the mid-19th century the East Coast Main Line has connected London and Edinburgh, an important 393-mile artery economically, geographically and politically. Next month the restored “Flying Scotsman” will once again thunder along it.

As any train aficionado will know, railways have always been central to nation building, particularly in Canada. Not for nothing is Simon Bradley’s magisterial new tome “The Railways” subtitled “Nation, Network and People”.

Of course the “Nation” part has always been contested. Twice during the past half century officials suggested truncating the line at Newcastle, but two Conservative Prime Ministers (Macmillan and Thatcher) demurred, doubtless conscious of the negative symbolism.

A few days before my journey I’d sat in the Commons Press Gallery watching as the House “resolved” itself in the “Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales)” for the first time since a revision to standing orders gave effect to so-called English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).

The adjective “historic” was bandied around, but what I found more interesting was the resulting Tory foray into territorial politics. Brandon Lewis, Minister of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), spoke of doing what was “right for our country and its constitution” and even referred to the DCLG as, in many ways, “the Department for England”. John Redwood, meanwhile, welcomed “some modest justice for England at last”.

I half expected a cry of “Speak for England!” to emanate from the Government benches, although there were other several other exclamations as the permanently outraged SNP MP Pete Wishart declared: “So, this is what an English Parliament looks like.” He spoke of Scottish MPs being “banned” from voting and claimed nothing had “infuriated the Scottish people more” than EVEL.

Such hyperbole is par for the course, and of course most of it was nonsense. Although undoubtedly inelegant, EVEL allows Scottish MPs to vote at a Bill’s Third Reading while I could list dozens of things that had infuriated “the Scottish people” more than procedural tinkering. In truth, EVEL in practice is all a bit academic, but the symbolism is certainly important: The Tories see it as an opportunity to reclaim the politics of Englishness from UKIP.

And quite right too. As the SNP has skilfully demonstrated over the past decade or so, the politics of identity can be harnessed in a predominantly harmless way, eschewing narrow parochialism and instead promoting positive “values”, although these of course are necessarily vague. Few in 2016 would deem “Scottishness” in any way negative, although I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of “Englishness”, particularly in the eyes of ethnic minorities.

As the political scientist Alan Convery makes clear in a forthcoming book examining the “Territorial Conservative Party” (Manchester University Press) the best (or rather most successful) Unionists have always been small “n” nationalists in each part of the UK. Stanley Baldwin, for example, presented himself as the archetypal Englishman south of the border and a patriotic Scot north of it, aided by his Anglo-Scottish parentage.

This strategy has had varying degrees of success. It worked well in Scotland between and after the wars, but less so in the modern era, while in Wales the Conservative Party explicitly tried to appear more “Welsh” in the period following the close-run devolution referendum of 1997. They consistently called for more powers, promoted the Welsh language and took care to rub up against the UK party and government. Last week, for example, Assembly Member David Melding described his own party’s draft Wales Bill as “in no fit state to command consensus”.

The Welsh Tories are now the official opposition in Cardiff Bay and, more to the point, are taken seriously by their opponents. Their Scottish counterparts, by contrast, came late to the nationalist game, initially appearing reluctant devolutionists. Under Ruth Davidson’s energetic leadership that has changed, but despite her opposition to tax credit cuts and the party’s claim in a recent broadcast to “stand up for Scotland” (against the SNP), it might prove too little, too late.

In an English context, however, it could pay electoral dividends, particularly as the Conservatives try to reclaim UKIP voters (whom polling suggests are motivated by a sense of Englishness as much as Euro-scepticism) and render Labour unelectable for several Parliaments. Labour, as we saw under the leadership of Messrs Brown and Miliband, aren’t at all comfortable with territorial politics, as demonstrated by the party’s muddled response to George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” strategy.

Englishness, of course, could also end up becoming a negative political force, as yesterday’s polling on the forthcoming EU referendum made depressingly clear. A Panelbase survey showed that while Scots opposed “Brexit” by 65 per cent to 35, voters in England narrowly support it by 53 per cent to 47. And given that Scotland doesn’t have enough Europhiles to balance out English sceptics, the UK as a whole could be on its way out of the Brussels club as soon as this June or July.

And while articulate Euro-sceptics such as the MEP Dan Hannan and Times commentator Tim Montgomerie frame their arguments in “British” terms, Little Englander sentiments are often to the fore, particularly among UKIPers. Indeed, it’s striking how closely their arguments – a quixotic mix of magical economic growth, regained “sovereignty” and an improved relationship with the “other” they seek to leave behind – resemble those of pro-independent Scots a couple of years ago

Suddenly those who warned of “uncertainty” and economic turbulence in the case of Scotland seem very certain that the UK leaving the EU wouldn’t have the same negative impact. The Brexit case lacks much empirical evidence beyond belief, faith and all the woolliest elements of modern identity politics, but that won’t really matter. Yesterday Nigel Farage took a leaf out of the SNP playbook by framing the EU referendum “as being the people versus the politicians”, and as we’ve seen that can work a treat.

It’s been equally entertaining to watch Nationalists grope around for pro-EU language that won’t make them sound like the proponents of “Better Together” they derided for being too “negative” back in 2014. Of course it’s almost impossible, for you can’t warn about the loss of influence and economic consequences associated with Brexit while simultaneously cautioning against “Project Fear Mark II”.

Pete Wishart did say something sensible last week, when he urged Conservative MPs to “create” their own Parliament and then join him and Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at Westminster to “consider the great reserved issues of foreign affairs, defence and international relations”. “It is called federalism”, he added, “and it seems to work quite adequately in most other nations.”

I’m glad to welcome him to the federalist fold, for the ideal, perhaps quixotic, is surely a reformed federal UK within a reformed, more federal European Union? For only that would give adequate expression to Scottishness as well as Englishness, Welshness and, admittedly more awkwardly, Northern Irishness.