Who are the English?

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The cast of "Jerusalem," a comedy by Jez Butterworth about contemporary rural life in England.

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — What is England? Who are the English?

It may seem a little odd to be asking these questions at this point in time — surely a nation with such a well-documented history and whose national art form is the written word should have the answers to those questions at its finger tips. But what it means to be English is the question of the moment in this country; so small that it could fit five times into Texas, but so crowded it has double the Lone Star State's population.

Englishness: In the wake of resurgent Scottish nationalism, English politicians have been discussing it. Now, following Anders Behring Breivik's mass murder spree in Norway and his contact with the "English Defence League," it is a question that needs to be attended to with urgency.

Younger artists have been dealing with the question for a couple of years.

On a cool summer evening in early July the crowd outside Manchester's Palace Theatre was sizzling with the buzz that comes from being among the lucky ones to grab a ticket to a hot show. In this case, “Dr. Dee: An English Opera” written by Damon Albarn, better known as the front man for rock groups Blur and Gorillaz.

The musical theater piece delivers precisely what it says on the package, an operatic take on Englishness. As the curtain rises a raven, guardian bird of the Tower of London, flies onto the stage, and a procession of English icons — or tourist cliches — march above the stage: suffragettes, morris dancers and a bowler-hatted gent from the Ministry of Silly Walks, balloons with the cross of St. George, the symbol on the English flag, float upwards. Meanwhile Albarn, hovering above everything, sings a song about "The People of the Rose."

Dr. Dee was a real person in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. John Dee in Albarn's opera is credited with being the prototype of a modern Englishman. He was a great mathematician and theorist of navigation. Dee deserves a lot of credit for convincing the Virgin Queen to build up England's naval presence in the world — not just for defense against Catholic Europe, but to develop its commercial power as well. He also put together the largest library the country had seen to that moment in time.

Dee lived at a moment of decisive change in England, points out Benjamin Woolley, whose biography of the doctor, “The Queen's Conjuror,” inspired Albarn's piece. "The Pope had just issued what in modern terms would be called a fatwa against the Queen," he said. "England, which had been Catholic for centuries, had to cut loose from its history."

A new narrative had to be constructed. Catholicism was ruled from the continent. The Normans who conquered England were from the continent. "Englishness was something pre-Norman," explained Woolley. "The English were free people able to do their own thing." That notion of individual freedom became a foundation of Englishness, he added.

Another essential part of Englishness came about at that time, according to Woolley: irony. The first definition of irony is saying one thing and meaning the opposite. In a time where one week everyone was Catholic and the next week everyone was Protestant, irony was a useful way to laugh off the change — considering that one's immortal soul was in the balance.

But Dr. Dee is only part of the picture. As much as anything the English question comes out of the rapidly changing ethnic make-up of Britain. When I arrived here in the 1970s for a junior year abroad I lived in a country called England. When I returned in the mid-1980s I moved to a country called Britain. What happened?

Politics. England was overtaken by Britain, as conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the term in the hope of trying to seem inclusive, even though her policies were tilted dramatically toward southern England. Mike Kenny, a professor at Queen Mary's College, University of London, points out, "To the Scots and Welsh, when politicians in Westminster talk about Britain they are really only talking to the English."

The left side of British politics also adopted Thatcher’s term. Kenny, who studies the politics of English nationalism, says, "The liberal 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.