LONDON — Back in the good olde days, no one had to ask what it meant to be English.
England was the dominant force in the United Kingdom, which was itself an imperial power. The English knew their place in the world and at home too, where gentlemen sat in the House of Lords and the working class labored in the factories.
But this tidy picture has so faded in the white light of modernization that the English no longer recognize themselves in it. Not only is the empire a bygone memory, and the tradition-bound House of Lords on its last leg, but elections for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly have led to suspicions that the United Kingdom itself may also be a thing of the past one day.
And the assertion of Scottish and Welsh nationalism has thrown the English into a very un-English identity crisis.
The "Scottish Question" has given way to conferences on the "English Question" and to a slew of books and articles anxiously examining the English character. It also has created a backlash among some politicians who argue that a stronger English bloc in the Westminster Parliament, or even a separate English Parliament, is required to defend English interests against the Scots and Welsh.
With nationalists forming the opposition parties in Scottish, Welsh and, soon, Northern Irish governments, "only England has an opposition that still sees a future for a united Britain," the Sunday Times lamented in a recent editorial. "This is a startling development, for these [nationalist] parties are now within reach of power.
"The House of Commons must get in on the federal act, holding English-only debates. [Conservative Party leader] William Hague . . . should bolster his position by pushing for English rights at Westminster."
Teresa Gorman, a Conservative member of Parliament, is leading the charge for English rights. In her pamphlet, "A Parliament for England," she argues that England will bear the lion's share of the costs of the new legislatures but will have no say in how tax money is spent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"Westminster members will have no voice in matters devolved to the regions, whereas the Celts will be free to pontificate on English affairs," Gorman writes.
The Scottish Parliament will have the power to levy some taxes and, like the Welsh Assembly, will make laws on issues such as education. But the Parliament in Westminster will still make foreign, defense and overall economic policy.
The English "have a strong sense of cultural worth, which is why they don't have to go around crowing about it," Gorman said in an interview. But under the Labor government vision of Britain in Europe, she added, "it looks as if England is being phased out."
Her cause has drawn little support from the English public, which is far more interested in pocketbook issues such as health services than in anything like constitutional reform. The elite may ponder the English Question, but it is hardly a topic of conversation at pubs.
"The English are still dominant in the United Kingdom," said Vernon Bogdanor, an Oxford University professor of politics and government. "Eighty-five percent of the population is English. I don't think people feel particularly worried or threatened. The United Kingdom is still held together more strongly than people realize. It is not altered by devolution."
Rosie Winterton, a Labor member of Parliament from Yorkshire, said she believes that there is a generational divide over the question of English identity.
"Older people tend to see it as being part of an island and quite special. There is the whole history of the empire and World War II, which understandably still makes a very big impression on the lives of older people," she said.
Among those 40 and younger, "perhaps people see their Englishness as connected with things like the European Union . . . Britain within Europe. Because of television, travel, communications, there is a much wider perspective."
Some Say There's No Such Thing as England
Indeed, to some English people there is simply no such thing as England. It is Britain.
"England is a fiction," Times columnist Simon Jenkins said in an interview. "England is the bits of Britain that are not identifiable as Wales and Scotland. There's Yorkshire and Cornwall and London."
The devolution of power to Scottish and Welsh governments is a logical reaction to 20 years of centralization and is nothing to fear, Jenkins said. An English Parliament, by contrast, makes no sense.
"You can separate limbs from a torso, but not a torso from its limbs," he wrote in the Times. "England is the core of the United Kingdom."
Auberon Waugh, son of English author Evelyn Waugh and editor of the Literary Review, agrees that England's problem is not the strength of the Scots and Welsh. He thinks it is the rise of the middle class.