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Countries shape character (so get ready to like Scots less)

'National character' is real, and it's not simply down to geography, language, religion or even genetics

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

As I write this, I am sitting outside a weinhaus in Kaub, a half-timbered town on the wooded slopes of the middle Rhine. If you don’t know the place, I recommend a visit: the scenery is lovely, the hiking is fine, and the Riesling is great (they have to handpick the grapes, like peasants in a Brueghel painting, because the river-ine vineyards are too steep for machines).

But there is another reason to make the agreeable journey to Kaub: it’s a brilliant place to contemplate the mysteries of nationalism and national character — i.e. what makes one nation ‘different’ from another. A question which, as we face the separation of Scotland, has a serious resonance for us all.

Kaub’s contribution to this debate is historical. It lies on one of the great fault lines of Europe, between France and Germany, between Catholic and Protestant — it was devastated many times in the 30 Years’ War, when the Catholics fought the Reformation and a fifth of Germans died. It also lies on the old frontier between the Roman Empire and the barbarian nations.

But there is a more recent event which has even greater relevance. On New Year’s Eve, 1813, the Prussian Field Marshall Blucher (of Waterloo fame) ambitiously marched an army of 50,000 men across the Rhine, at Kaub, to drive Napoleon out of Germany. It was a first inkling that the tide was turning: that Prussia/Germany was overtaking a slowly declining France.

Beneath this military derring-do lies the vital paradox. The Prussian nobility who led that assault on France all spoke French. This is because upper classes across Europe, at the time, saw French culture, language and customs as superior, and enviable. In a sense, the Prussian elite not only wanted to beat the French, they wanted to be French. Yet they were never French, and could not be.

This attitude, in super-diluted form, still lingers today. As I’ve travelled around the middle Rhine, from the fake medieval castles of Boppard to the exquisite ruins of Bacharach, I’ve lost count of the number of Germans, in the Rhineland, who have told me they feel almost as French as they do German — thanks to their wine–drinking, soft climate, and joie de vivre (lebensfreude).

Yet they aren’t French. At all. German cuisine is still fairly bad. Germans are friendly and apologetic. Germans wear socks with sandals, a punishable crime in France. And boy do the Germans like oompah music. You don’t hear that in Paris.

So how do national characteristics emerge? It feels like a vast, silly generalisation to say nations have characters; nonetheless, they do. The painter Jean Cocteau once said that ‘Les Français sont des Italiens de mauvaise humeur’ (‘The French are the Italians in a bad mood’). He was surely right. To me, Frenchness seems like the Islam of nationalities: it still believes in its inherent superiority, and it is perpetually irritated by clear evidence that this belief is false.

The French therefore stand in stark contrast to their neighbours. If you take the short trip from sunny Menton on the Riviera to Ventimiglia on the Ligurian coast, you go from a land of obstinate, proud, rather grumpy Gallic shruggers to a land of bouncy, chirpy, slightly unreliable Latin chancers, in just eight miles.

Could language be the explanation for differing national types? This solution is belied by one of Europe’s most adorable corners: south Tyrol, tucked away in northern Italy, and shaded by the Dolomites. In south Tyrol you find Italian affability, fine coffee, great pasta, late-night chatter, and haphazard parking — yet they speak German. Go 100 miles north into north Tyrol, or Bavaria, and they have the same mountains, same middle-European sun, and the very same language — yet they have terrible meat dishes and dodgy coffee and quiet, orderly towns that are going to bed even as the south Tyroleans are strolling the boulevards.

The case of south Tyrol (Italian) versus north Tyrol (Austrian) also belies any genetic explanation for national character. North and south of the Brenner Pass they are genetically identical. The same regions give the lie to an exclusively religious argument for national character: everyone around Tyrol has been variously Catholic and Protestant; now they are mostly devoted to making money.

How about a cultural argument? This must be part of any explanation. The two Tyrols assuredly look to their respective metro-poles, and take their cultural cues from them. For the north Tyroleans it is formal, wistful, cake-eating Vienna, for the south Tyroleans, following Italy’s acquisition of the region in 1919, it is now epicurean, extrovert Rome and Tuscany.

This is where continental Europe, with its experience of shifting land borders, might have something to teach insular Brits, as we contemplate Scottish independence.

Scotland and England are clearly distinct in character, and yet not sufficiently so as to justify a land frontier: which is probably why there hasn’t been one for 300 years. Yes the Scots like fried Mars bars, and the English do not, but we all adore a curry. Scottish humour is maybe brusquer than English comedy, yet the saltiness of Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle seems equally popular in London as Lanark. The climate differs across the island — rainy and cool in Clydebank, rainy and mild in Cornwall — but not in the way it differs from northern to southern countries of Europe.

Then there are the things we share, undivided. We share religion (once Catholic, then Protestant, now secular). We share a history of conquest and invention, of empire and democracy. We also share nearly all our genes: recent genetic maps show that most people in the UK, north and south, descend from arrivals in Britain after the Ice Age, and we similarly differ, genetically, from continental Europeans.

We share, in addition, the monarchy and the pound and the BBC and the NHS. And of course, most importantly, we share this same scruffy, crowded, beautiful British island in the north Atlantic — and we share it as friends and as family. For that is what we are. At the moment. Family.

But the lesson from Europe, and from divided Tyrol, is this. Once you put a frontier in place then two peoples, however alike, will grow apart, even if they use the same language. A phoney partition becomes real over time. Eventually the cultures diverge so far they can never be truly rejoined.

If you are a Scottish or English nationalist, that might be something to celebrate. For many others, it will be a source of grief.

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