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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Kitty MLB

    Yes Sean I know where you are, utterly delightful and i can understand why Germans there feel almost French..apart from
    the wine not being quite right and the way French and German
    men treat woman is quite different and attitudes in general.
    People in the Dolomites ..that outstandingly beautiful mountainous region in Italy with its log cabins and apple strudel
    feel almost Austrian.And one part of Italy is as different as the other.
    You have pointed out its the same between Scotland and England,
    the warmest jumpers on earth come from Shetland..thankfully
    as this is a damp country, But might I say the Scottish identity
    has not been quite eroded in the same way as the English…
    multiculturalism in excessive amounts has seen to that.

    • vieuxceps2

      Yes,I agree.Multiculturalism has eroded the identity of England so that in time nothing will be left of what once was.The same is not yet true of Scotland but time will also bring about the same change for there too.Given the strange imposition on us all, Europe included ,of this fate,perhaps the urge for secession n Scotland has been drivento some extent by a felt need to defend themselves against what they see happening to their neighbours? it won’t work of course,but at least it delays the inevitable.

      • Kitty MLB

        Yes I totally agree.

  • English Aborigine

    It is alwa

  • Damaris Tighe

    “[R]ecent genetic maps show that most people in the UK, north & south, descend from arrivals in Britain after the Ice Age”: this is very important because it undermines the oft-repeated justification of mass immigration that we’re a “nation of immigrants”. This false assertion should be countered at every opportunity.

    Before I’m misunderstood, as I have been on other threads when I’ve made this statement, I’m descended from 19th century immigrants myself. Small incoming migration of industrious peoples is one thing; mass immigration of unassimible third world peasants is something else. The results are seen in Rotherham.

    The other issue is culture. Culture is the fundamental cause of difference between peoples, not race. An individual born into a misogynistic, nihilistic culture will turn out differently from one born into a life-affirming culture – although he always has the choice to shift from one to another, as many have done. Culture isn’t destiny but it can be a prison.

    The greatest sin of left/liberalism has been to re-enforce these cultural prisons. Its other great sin has been to so undermine the host English culture through welfarism & ultra-permissiveness that it no longer offers an attractive alternative. It doesn’t inspire respect.

    • The Elderking

      Check out this article – it gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that we are a nation of immigrants.

      It also demonstrates the wicked ideology behind imposed mass immigration.

      National Geographic – http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/07/0719_050719_britishgene.html

      • Damaris Tighe

        Yes, this is the research I had in mind.

      • willshome

        As explained above, with trillions of ancestors, we are pretty much descended from everyone who lived 12,000 years ago. (Including, presumably, some of those who had left when the Ice came.) Personally, I am more wary of some idiot who styles himself “The Elderking” than of my Albanian neighbours. Too much Hobbit as a boy is my diagnosis. Tolkein would be ashamed of you.

      • Nicholas I

        I think the matter of “we are all immigrants” is something thrown up as a distraction. The act of moving from one place to another is not what distinguishes ancient immigrants from the hordes arriving now. The real issues are:

        (1) Past “immigrants” struggled, fought, fought each other, settled the land, built towns, etc. They didn’t arrive and say “asylum” or overstay their visas and make up sob stories, then get free health care and housing. The point is: Not all immigrants are equal.

        (2) The genetic factor and historical relationships are important too. So Irish people belong in England more than Poles do, because of history and genetics, and Poles belong more than Turks do, and so on, down to those who belong least (Somalis I would say, or any sort of jew).

        (3) “WE’RE FULL UP!” Go back where you came from

      • Nicholas I

        People should really start saying “mass importation” rather than “immigration”.

    • Kitty MLB

      I thought it was said that we were a nation of shop keepers.
      I am English with a paternal Italian grandfather..so Roman
      and Anglo-Saxon.
      We were also a country full of Inventors, Northern Industry.
      Our Culture, or Englishness, if you like, cannot be obtained
      by just receiving a UK passport..its about history and shared

      • Damaris Tighe

        Indeed. And as long as consciousness of that history & shared values remains strong & confident, this country can incorporate small immigrant communities – even those that keep to themselves – without problem. Unfortunately that consciousness has collapsed & that’s part of the problem we have now.

        • phil davis

          lol gtfo

          • Damaris Tighe

            Yes, you make a lot of intelligent, incisive comments like his don’t you.

          • RadioJockhadistan

            You have confused culture with class – we have no cultural issues with any people of class from anywhere across the globe.

          • Damaris Tighe

            Yes, I’d go along with that. Imran Khan would fit in well here, many of his villager compatriots do not. But that’s because the upper classes of nations like Pakistan have a very anglicised culture.

          • vieuxceps2

            “lol gtfo”. You and your ilk are one reason for our ills.Sneering, smirking,trending failures who borrow their words from others and smear their contempt on decency to hide their own ugliness.The loud laugh that speaks the vacant mind…

          • Kitty MLB


      • Moderator

        Apart from you are not Anglo-Saxon, almost no one is looking at the genetic map. Same goes for the ‘celtic’ myth.

        • Kitty MLB

          What Celtic myth?

          • Moderator

            That the people of Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland, Wales etc are Celtic.

          • Kitty MLB

            Yes they are all Celtic.

    • sulbernick

      “Culture is the fundamental cause of difference between peoples, not race.” Culture is a function of race – with a bit of geography thrown in.

      • Damaris Tighe

        If culture is a function of race you would have to explain how members of one culture can adopt another culture. Race/ethnicity is something that can’t be chosen, cultural beliefs are. That’s why racism is wrong, but ‘islamophobia’ is valid.

        • Nicholas I

          “Islamophobia” is a jew false concept, pathologiisation, invented by jew Dick Rose and the Runnymede Trust (another fake patriotically-named racket)

        • sulbernick

          In general I don’t believe a member of one culture can adopt another culture.

          A culture is a function of a people’s interaction with nature; every aspect of every culture (ie system of law, custom, mode of dress, manners, art, religion, architecture, etc) it is a manifestation of a people’s understanding of the world.

          These facets of culture are an expression of a particular soul; why would anyone wish to deny his own soul in favour of another’s? And it’s that that’s necessary for a member of one cuilture to fully accept the mores of another?

          And if what you suggest is true, surely it occurs only in very rare and exceptional circumstances.

          Is not this reality the midwife if ulticultutralism?

    • willshome

      We descend from those early arrivals – but not exclusively. I had two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents…

      Going back 12,000 years (400 modern generations though rather more in practical terms), my ancestors number well into the trillions so I would be utterly amazed if a few million of them were NOT those “arrivals in Britain after the Ice Age”.

      I am also reliably informed by statisticians that I (like everyone on earth) am almost certainly descended from Charlemagne (a mere 40 generations back in time) and he never set foot in Britain. Which leaves us all pretty much the “mongrel half-bred race” that Daniel De Foe proudly declared the “True Born Englishman” back (when it was currently the Dutch the native folk were panicking about as undermining threatening our values, way of life and racial purity).

      So yes, I am proud to be descended from those early settlers – and from all the other immigrants that have helped create the nation that – to be valued above every other triumph – has generally managed to rise above the piffle of racism to ensure that it is merely a sporadic and localised annoyance of the ignorant, rather than a national philosophy.

      • Damaris Tighe

        Neither I nor Sean Thomas said ‘exclusively’.

      • Sean L

        Yes but he specifically said that culture was the fundamental difference between people, not race, so your “racial purity” is a straw man.

        • Damaris Tighe

          This is the second time in a few days that I’ve been accused of arguing for ‘racial purity’ or racism when I’ve simply been talking about ethnicity. It’s as if people can’t get past the dna thing & see the rest of the argument.

          • Sean L

            Yeah it’s a cheap and easy means of asserting one’s moral superiority, the ‘racism’ accusation. Also conveniently unanswerable: one cannot *prove* that one is not ‘racist’, spite of one’s protestestations to the contrary.

          • Damaris Tighe

            For that reason every time I mention the dna of the British Isles I feel obliged to say that I’m descended from 19th century immigrants so have no axe to grind! But it doesn’t seem to get through.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh yes we can prove that.

      • Nicholas I

        And did all those early settlers get free health care and get government “protection” against ever hearing a negative word, so they could get critics imprisoned, as is the case now? No, they didn’t. Fact: N***oes don’t belong in Britain. That’s why Queen Elisabeth declared blackamoors personae no grata

    • Pootles

      Excellent post! On the mocking references to the 1950s, the funny thing is that the two major parties would love it to be the 1950s, when the electorate more or less split evenly between them, and could be relied on to turn out. These days, all sorts of community ‘leaders’ have to be appeased, with results like Rotherham…

  • beenzrgud

    The UK does have a national character, which is why amongst other things the industrial revolution started here, and not somewhere else like France. The French are loving all this by the way. Anything that undermines the UK is OK by the French, which is probably as good a reason as any to make sure we maintain our unity.

  • Jambo25

    Actually, I’d start by querying one of Mr. Thomas’s points. I actually know the Tirol rather well. I’ve been spending rather a lot of holidays there over the last 25-30 years; both Nord and Sud Tirol and know places like Sterzing, Brixen, Bozen and Meran rather well. I also know the area round Innsbruck, Scwaz and up over the German border into Bayern. Its very very similar in terms of

    • Damaris Tighe

      Sud Tirol is one of the great secrets of Europe. Meran is especially beautiful with an odd fusion of ‘old Austria’ & Italian culture. Tirolean caps, German language, Austrian style taverns & imperial architecture, fairy tale castles, mountain vinyards & Italian coffee & infrastructure. It was Freud’s favourite bolthole – & one of mine.

      • Jambo25

        Meran is a great place for horse racing. Nice course.

    • Nicholas I

      I know.He’s talking through his lederhosen there. There’s a big difference between Tyrol and Bavaria, not so much between South and North Tyrol. I believe he knows that, but had to meet a deadline.

      • Jambo25

        I think Tirol is similar to southern Bavaria such as Mittenwald and Garmisch but definitely is rather different from Franconia and Swabia.

  • Sunil Prasannan

    I know I said it before but…

    The silly Cyberunionist NO campaign is full of negatives IMHO.

    “The Scots are too stupid to rule themselves”
    “The Scots are too poor to rule themselves”
    “The Scots are too anti-English to rule themselves”
    “HM The Queen will have a heart attack and die if the Scots vote yes”
    “Scotland will immediately be consumed by the ocean if they vote yes”
    “There will be all-out global thermonuclear war if the Scots vote yes”
    “The Sun will go Nova and destroy the entire solar system if the Scots vote yes”

    Er, you get the picture!


    • rtj1211

      Actually, when the cyberno campaigners ask the cybernats genuine questions about consequences which affect all of us, not just Scots, they never answer and sneer/deride.

      It’s not our vote on whether you leave, but it is our negotiation about the consequences of that decision, if and when it comes. That’s very much our negotiation and don’t you forget it.

      Just because you’re having a hot affair with a French grand seigneur doesn’t mean he’ll marry you after the divorce, you know. Grand Seigneurs have one rule: always dump the mistress as soon as she wants to be more than that.

      Marriage guidance rather than hot steamy sex is probably what the majority of folks in the UK would vote for right now…….

    • Nicholas I

      Where do you read that? I think Scots will vote NO, and if they vote YES it will be a rather dismal affair. Not because Scots are more stupid, poor, etc, but because they are clueless, with no plan, full of propaganda. Or they’ll get over voting YES and learn to live with it. I think they are too lazy and stupid, but no more so than the English, etc. It’s just that the English have less legal cause to separate. It’s easier to leave than to kick undesirables out, apparently.

  • Sunil Prasannan

    Can Sean explain why if we are “better together” we play our three most popular team sports, football, rugby and cricket, as separate teams and leagues? And in the case of the first two, we have done so since the mid-19th century?
    If we are so “United” as a Kingdom, would you argue for a united UK football team and football league?

    • sulbernick

      If we are so united as a kingdom why do we need to call ourselves United Kingdom?

  • Alexandria

    I am Scottish and I have never eaten a deep fried mars bar nor ever want to – now a decent piece of fish yes…generalizations are everywhere at the minute and do not believe what you are seeing now from rent-a-mob. My family are so mixed from Scotland, England, Ireland, Thailand, USA and we are not unusual now. I look like Danish people (highlander family) as much commented on when working in Denmark so get the Ice Age thing …makes sense. We are really not so different hence others will jump to emulate the mcnasty type stuff just an English version of it – it says a lot about you how you treat others and says little about the others..

  • lakelander

    Good article, again. The one in the Telegraph about “I told you so” was spot on too.

    Sean, I am enjoying your blogs so much I have just bought one of your novels to take on holiday. (That’s just what you want to hear, isn’t it?).

  • rtj1211

    You don’t know much about British climate, do you?

    The climate in Glasgow is as different to that in Aberdeen as you could hope to imagine. Go look at the rainfall totals, go look at the effect of Easterly winds, go look at snowfall totals etc etc.

    The great climate divide in the UK is not north to south, but east to west. Wetter, windier and milder in the West, drier, sunnier, foggier and snowier in the East. Go tell the Lancastrians and the Yorkies they are the same. I’m sure you’ll meet with a friendly welcome………

  • willshome

    “We share, in addition, the monarchy and the pound and the BBC and the NHS.”

    Not for long, Yes vote or No vote. This government’s aggressive privatisation of the NHS, in line with its long-held plans but not announced to the electorate before the General Election, is due to be set in stone by TTIP (if it has not already by CETA), and will mean the end of our most popular institution within a couple of years – and without a mandate. Where is our Referendum on that?

    • Nicholas I

      People like you are what makes Britain stink.

  • trace9

    But does this really get to the Knaub of the problem.. Perhaps it’s Glasgow that should declare UDI – they seem to be the nub if not kernel of Nats-ionalism here & call an end to the rest of the unrest.. How dreadful to pick grapes wi’ bickering brattle, Hand-picking them in Aude, there was only the music of birdsong. Mon fermier would say that the silence was ‘comme un cathedrale’. They were all ‘ancien’ & used to it, yet still capable of wonderment. Their plantations being on sloping ground perhaps their children still harvest in a cathedral. Nice work if you can get it.

    • Nicholas I

      England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Man, the Shetlands and the Orkneys can manage fine without the miserable Scots. Let them have the mainland, but Freedom for the Orkneys! Liberty for the Shetlands!

  • Bbg100


    • Nicholas I


  • minnesoter

    I don’t think I know what a Scot is anymore. Something to do with the EU, I guess.

  • Nicholas I

    “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.” – More evidence of the Talmudic nature of Islam.

  • Guest

    “…the saltiness of Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle seems equally popular in London as Lanark” – as in “not very much”

  • 1bar1

    Thanks to all posters.
    Your views are useful in considering problems in America.