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Who are the English?

The arts, including a new opera by Gorillaz' Damon Albarn, offer some answers.

project is tied up with a Britain that is a less ethnically defined space. Citizenship is not dependent on national identity."

Kenny says this non-ethnic approach to identity hasn't worked and now there is a backlash from traditional Labour voters. "There is an idea of Englishness as part of a sharpened politics of resentment in the white working class with attitudes that are anti-immigrant and anti-political elites."

One of the best British films of the last decade, Shane Meadows' This is England, looks at how that resentment permeates the culture of a white working class housing project on the outskirts of a provincial city. It comes out of his own brief experience of skinhead culture in the early 1980s.

Ethnicity has changed dramatically in England in recent decades. Prior to the 1980 census, the question of race was not even asked. Today a little over 12 percent of the population of England is non-white. Can minorities born here be considered English? That was an underlying question of Zadie Smith's spectacularly successful debut novel “White Teeth.” The answer can be avoided by saying everyone born on this island is British. Indeed many among immigrants and those born into the South Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African communities prefer to think of themselves as British or Black British.

The ethnic question is complicated by the fact that minorities overwhelmingly live in the cities. Official population statistics show London and Birmingham, England's largest cities, both have minority populations of about one third. To residents of those cities that seems a bit on the low side.

People who live in the country are white and by and large native English. The London so brilliantly depicted by Zadie Smith is as foreign to them as New York. It's a small country but the gap between city and country is enormous. Historian Kenny says you need to look in the countryside to get an understanding of Englishness. "There is a small ‘c’ conservatism in the country that is a hallmark of Englishness, the kind of conservatism you find in villages and towns. What is distinctively English is a backward-looking and nostalgic set of memories based in the countryside."

The Tony-award winning hit play “Jerusalem” gets mileage out of this nostalgia. Written by Jez Butterworth, the play tells the story of Jonny "Rooster" Byron. Rooster is a middle-aged wild-man living on the outskirts of a small country town. The local kids hang out with him and he happily leads them astray, filling their heads with a vision of a wild and free England beyond the constraints of earning a living so you can be a full participant in consumer culture. Rooster is the contemporary expression of the unfettered free Anglo-Saxon whose myth was first built in the days of Dr. Dee.

Beyond the arts there is currently a mania for re-discovering English roots by getting back to English nature in the raw, despite the fact as Benjamin Woolley points out, "Every centimeter of this country has been cultivated."

A popular way for the educated upper middle classes to get re-acquainted with England is through "Wild Swimming," that is swimming in rivers, never mind that most rivers in this country wouldn't qualify as creeks in America or Australia.

The cultural ferment over Englishness is finally being measured. YouGov Cambridge, the academic arm of the polling firm, YouGov, recently did a survey of 80,000 people on a wide range of subjects including identity. Thirty-eight percent of those polled said they felt more English than British, only 20 percent felt more British than English.

Kenny is pretty sure how this will translate into politics. "The Labour party bang on all the time about 'Britain' and that puts them at a disadavantage in 'England.'" As more than 80 percent of the people on this island live in England, that could become a very serious problem for Labour.

Or it may never become a problem at all. The current fuss over England and Englishness may eventually subside and become a subject for what Benjamin Woolley points out is the bedrock of the culture: irony. Maybe everyone south of the Scottish border and east of Wales will start singing the old Flanders and Swann song, "The English Are Best," and leave it at that.