Judging by recent publishing across a range of genres and disciplines both the people of England and their characteristics are very much in vogue. For writers of fiction and autobiography, commentators on politics and popular culture and academics from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, the English appear to be a subject of considerable and continuing fascination (See Barnes, 1998; Scruton, 2000; Duffy, 2001; Shah, 2000; Gikandi, 1996; Davey, 1999). Yet the outcome of all this discussion and debate is not an emerging consensus on the identity and characteristics of the English but rather more studies, more confusion and, occasionally, rancorous argument. Just what is Englishness?
Given that this question has not only many potential answers but also a wide variety of ways in which it might be explored, it is important to set some parameters for what follows. First of all, this chapter is concerned only with what has been variously referred to as national consciousness, sentiment or identity. It has nothing, or at least very little, to say on the origins and development of nationalism as a political doctrine since these are topics more than adequately covered elsewhere (A good place to start is the collection of essays in G. Balakrishnan (ed.) 1996, 'Mapping the Nation'). Second, an increasingly common method for defining Englishness is to conduct opinion polls and surveys that ask people about the 'character of the nation'. Typically, the responses reveal a bewildering range of activities or images associated with Englishness and a series of contradictory and vague statements about the values that define it. Indeed, the sheer variety of responses indicates not only how elusive an essential Englishness is, but how inevitably flawed are those attempts to define it in absolute terms. So instead of providing a descriptive and necessarily selective list of the values of the English or of the activities commonly associated with Englishness, this chapter tries to explain how and why certain values, qualities or characteristics come to be thought of as uniquely English.
Given the confusion surrounding these English qualities the task is not an easy one. Indeed, according to a recent poll, the English were so confident about their national identity they couldn't be bothered to define it (Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2000). As will become clear below, there are good reasons to dispute this statement but it does point to something of a paradox. Englishness appears to be at the same time everywhere and nowhere, much