The English were, for centuries, self-confident enough to need no definition; they knew who they were, but not what they were. Losing their confidence, they now look around in vain for their identity: are we a nation, a territory, a language, a culture, an empire or just an idea? All answers seem inadequate or wrong. The national idea, which conscripted the French to their revolution, and then fatefully mobilised the rest of Europe, has not in the past had much appeal for the English: it is too atavistic, too divorced from institutions, customs and laws, to lend itself to their domestic form of politics. The challenge of nationalism, as in Northern Ireland, has been met by an appeal to the "Union" - in other words, to a purely legal entity, representing neither race nor religion nor language, but a history of sovereign jurisdiction.
Vague notions of "kith and kin" animated the builders of the British empire; but who was included, and why, remained uncertain. When politicians appealed for support, they addressed not the nation or the kingdom, but "the country" - meaning all those people who were represented at Westminster. But what these people had in common, and what had brought them together under a single crown, remained wholly obscure. The Scots were still governed by their own laws, and possessed institutions, offices and ceremonies that made little sense to those brought up south of the border.
When politicians appealed to the country, it was as though they were waving vaguely from the Palace of Westminster towards territory that stretched without definition, until falling, in some distant and unvisited region, into the sea. That territory was England, which called to its children in every far-flung corner of the globe, furnishing them with the idea and the love of home.
It was, therefore, as the home country that England was most easily defined. But the definition made less and less sense as the empire dwindled, and slowly and uncertainly the English revised their self-description, pretending like the rest of Europe that they were a nation. But what nation? Why, the British: for they were British nationals. No such thing, however, was written in their passports, which referred instead to "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", and which "requested and required", in the name of Her Britannic Majesty, that the bearer should be allowed to pass freely. Legally speaking, they were subjects of the Queen - or rather, of the Crown, which is a "corporation sole", a collective with at most one member: an entity recognised only by the common law of England, an ancient product of the English imagination interred like some adamantine relic in the subsoil of our culture.
The idea of Britain was invented to give credibility to the Union, to sustain the Protestant religion of England and Scotland, and to fortify Great Britain against Continental power. So argues Linda Colley in her seminal work Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 (1992), and her story of the British nation is fast becoming orthodoxy. Philosophically speaking, however, it is flawed. It is true that there was a British empire, that the English learnt to describe themselves as Britons, and that Britain and Britishness became the common currency of sovereign claims. But still, there never was a British nation. The Scots continued to describe themselves as Scots; the Irish as Irish - or, if they rejected the Republic, as "Unionists", meaning adherents to the strange legal entity described in their passports. The Welsh, who provided us with our most determinedly English kings, the Tudors, were still, in their own eyes, Welsh. The English remained English and, in their hearts, it was England that secured their loyalty, not Scotland, Ireland or Wales. Only one group of Her Majesty's subjects saw itself as British - namely, those immigrants from the former empire who seized on the idea of British nationality as a means of having no real nationality at all, certainly no nationality that would conflict with ethnic or religious loyalties forged far away and years before. There are black or Bangladeshi Britons, but not black or Bangladeshi English; and there are few black British who see themselves primarily as subjects of the English Crown.
Nations are, in Benedict Anderson's illuminating phrase , "imagined communities" - communities formed through their own storytelling, shaped by language, culture and consciousness into a form that will prepare their members for a common fate. Nations are not the "natural" communities implied by their name: seldom, if ever, do they arise from a common stock or a web of kinship. They are as much the products as the producers of the states that govern them, and even if they are sanctified by a common language and a common religion, these things may exist because administrative convenience requires them. Hence the theory - exaggerated in detail, but persuasive in outline - that the nation is a creation, or at any rate a consequence, of the modern state, and nationalism the ideology upon which at least some modern forms of political order draw for their legitimacy.
The theory was first advanced by Lord Acton; since then, it has become a commonplace among historians, and one that is seized upon with glee by those who find the simple loyalties of simple people both dangerous and unattractive. The recent experience of nationalism - in Germany, the Balkans and the Soviet empire - inspires little affection for the national idea. And the anti-British history of recent decades - whether half amused in the manner of David Cannadine, or sneering and bitter like Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson - can be seen as a sustained rejection of British nationalism, and of the pride and loyalty that made Britishness into a coherent project and a serious ideal.
Plausible though Lord Acton's theory may seem, however, when considering the emerging states of the postcolonial world, it does not apply to the United Kingdom - a state improvised over centuries to accommodate the evolving claims of the English Crown. The ideal of "Britishness" that emerged in the 19th century was an ideal made in England, and the United Kingdom itself was founded on a loyalty that preceded and transcended the modern state. This was the loyalty to England: not a nation or a doctrine or a state, but a country, the place where "we" belong. Yes, but who are we? That is the question that the English never needed to ask themselves - not because they had a ready answer, but because England has exerted so strong a hold over their imaginations that, until recently, they instinctively knew who they were, without recourse to those concepts of nationhood, Volk and culture that have played such a large and questionable part in Continental politics. England defined their membership. As to England itself, it was home - distinguished from all those other places, known collectively as "abroad", to which the English ventured and from which they returned in mild surprise at their good fortune.
The English thought of their country - the place itself, and not just the people - in personal terms. They loved, hated, resented and praised it in equal measure. "England, my England" (the refrain of a famous piece of patriotic kitsch by W E Henley) was a persistent theme of their literature; and already, in the history plays of Shakespeare, the corporate character of England took the central role in the drama. And it is precisely because they had this attitude to their country that the English found it so difficult to describe what they were. Their identity was formed through a personal relationship with a place - a place enchanted precisely by that personal relationship. Famously - notoriously - in an essay entitled "England, Your England", George Orwell defined his country as a bundle of sensations: "The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pintables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning - all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene."
Forget that the particular impressions upon which Orwell seizes have disappeared, and were, in any case, no more than one man's special flavour. Is it not obvious that Orwell is describing not a people but a place, and at the same time identifying that place as a person? For Orwell, too, England was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state, but a home.
Things at home don't need an explanation. They are there, because they are there. It was one of the most remarkable features of the English that they required so little explanation of their customs and institutions. They bumbled on, without anyone asking the reason why, or anyone being able, if asked, to provide it. Continental observers often accused the English of a disrespect for reason, and an unwillingness to think things through. But if the result of thinking things through is paradox, why should reason require it? The French thought things through at the revolution, and the result was accurately summarised by Robespierre: "the despotism of liberty". Impenetrable contradiction is what you must expect, when you try to start from scratch, and refuse to recognise that custom, tradition, law and what Burke called "prejudice" are the best that human beings can obtain in the way of government. So, for many centuries, the English were content with an unwritten constitution, a parliament whose powers remained undefined, a form of sovereignty that could be traced to no specific institution and no single person, a system of justice in which the most important laws were not written down, and patterns of local administration that could not be explained, even by those who operated them.
Home is a place where you can be yourself and do your own thing. Respect the rituals and the household gods, and for the rest you can please yourself. When people feel at home, therefore, they allow themselves freedoms, hobbies and eccentricities. They become amateurs, experts and cranks. They collect stamps, butterflies or biscuit tins; they grow vegetables so large that nobody could eat them, and breed dogs so ugly that only an Englishman could look them in what might charitably be called the face. The eccentricity of the English follows as a matter of course, once it is recognised that they were at home in their world and safe there.
So, too, does their amateurism. The empire was acquired by roving adventurers and merchants who, trading with natives whom they could not or would not trust, summoned the law of Old England to conclude the deal, and, in the wake of the law, the sovereign power that would enforce it. But it was not only the empire that was acquired in this way. Almost the entire social order of the country arose from private initiatives. Schools, colleges and universities; municipalities, hospitals, theatres; festivals and even the army regiments, all tell the same story: some public-spirited amateur, raising funds, setting out principles, acquiring premises and then bequeathing his achievement to trustees or to the Crown, with the state appearing, if at all, only after the event, in order to guarantee the survival and propagation of good works that it would never have initiated by itself. That is the English way. It is the way of people who are at home, and who refuse to be bossed about by those whom they regard as outsiders. Their attitude to officialdom reflected their conviction that, if something needs doing, then the person to do it is you.
The English did receive institutions from outside, and in particular from the Church of Rome, which Christianised them in the early years of their home-building. It is a striking fact, however, that, long before the Reformation, the Church in England had become the Church of England, and was chafing against papal authority in the name of ancient customs and home-made forms of mystery. The Church acquired the same dispersed and homely quality as the system of law courts, sheriffs and shires. It had two archbishops, both situated outside the capital. Its priests were appointed by private patrons, colleges or the sovereign, and when Henry VIII declared that it was he, and not the pope, who was head of the Church, this was accepted by many people as entirely natural and in no way incompatible with the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith. Even today, the Church of England calls itself Catholic, and its Protestant credentials are like the Protestantism of England generally - not so much a protest at the apostolic succession as a refusal to be governed from elsewhere.
Certainly, what I have just written is one-sided; but it offers an explanation of our current crisis. The muddle of our parliamentary institutions, the hereditary components in our constitution, the common law system, our attachment to the countryside as the icon of our historical loyalty, and our cult of the amateur all stem from a single cause: which is that we have been for centuries at home in our territory, governed not by individuals, cabals or conspiracies, but by "the law of the land", a law discovered in judgement, rather than imposed from on high. From William the Conqueror onwards, it was assumed that the monarch owes his legitimacy to his promise to uphold the law, which precedes his office and also defines it. Hostility to the European Union is merely the latest manifestation of this conception of law, as a form of judgement that stands above politics and is distinct from the edicts, ukases, decrees and "directives" of Continental powers.
Devolution has, likewise, presented the English with a situation that they are not equipped by their institutions or their culture to understand. Our present government is composed largely of Scots, such as Gordon Brown, or people educated in Scotland, as was Tony Blair, and while the Scots can go on legislating for the English, the English have been deprived of their jurisdiction north of the border. This radical disenfranchising of the English is also a political interdiction. In the revised United Kingdom, there simply is no English part, and the official map of the European Union, issued by the European Commission in Brussels, divides the Continent into "regions" that make no mention of England. England has been finally disposed of. When Poland was partitioned, and the name of a country that had existed for eight centuries as a sovereign state was removed from the official maps of Europe, the English were appalled. Two centuries later, what was done to Poland by force is being done to England by subterfuge, and the response of the English is a guilt-ridden silence.
Roger Scruton's latest book, England: an elegy, is published on 12 October by Chatto & Windus (£16.99)