National stereotypes still cast spells. Americans are rich, Germans efficient, French haughty, Italians chaotic, Swedes caring, Russians brutal. They can veer towards frank racism, or to sentimentality (which can be closely allied). In our own islands, the English are cold, the Irish feckless, the Welsh lazy and the Scots aggressive. Or to put it another way, the English are democratic, the Welsh comradely, the Irish inventive and the Scots rational.
We come together only when marketing ourselves to tourists: all of us are welcoming, caring for our wonderful traditions, good cooks, great storytellers and perpetually smiling. In this frame, we are not just like each other – but apparently closely similar to the Americans, French, Italians, Germans, Swedes (as far as their tourist brochures go) and…maybe not so much the Russians, who don't get many tourists and don't seem to want them anyway.
Stereotypes are, of course, scorned: we usually know, if we think about it, that while there are such things as national characteristics, people within nations differ widely – and the stereotypes themselves are often more a reflection of old thinking, prejudice or hopeful expectation, than rooted in present reality. Yet they linger, a kind of film over the inner eye when we meet, or think, of a foreigner.
If you want to rid yourself of this film of deception, consider the present and former president of the United States. Donald Trump's parentage was Scots-German – his mother the former and his father the latter. Barack Obama is the son of an American mother of mainly English descent, with a little Scots, Welsh and Irish in there too. His father was Kenyan.
Though he met his father only once – when Barack Obama senior, who had returned to Kenya, came back for a month and stayed with his mother – the president-to-be identified himself, and was identified, as black, and is routinely referred to as 'the first black president'. Stereotypes of black Americans have been, in the US and out of it, heavily racist and/or condescending for much of the period since the end of slavery. It's been an often dreary, sometimes violent and murderous, history of attitudes, punctuated by a few accepted heroes, such as Frederick Douglass in the 19th century and Martin Luther King in the 20th. The assumptions made were of indolence, low intelligence, irresponsibility and criminality: the 'positive' were of happy-go-lucky natures, musicality and athletic prowess.
Trump's grandfather, Frederick Trump, emigrated from Germany to the US in 1885, and made a fortune in the Yukon gold rush in running restaurants, hotels and brothels. His father, Fred Trump, was as dominant and influential in his life as much as Obama's was absent – building up and taking his son into a thriving property company, securing a rich base for his future. His mother was born to a poor crofting family in the Isle of Lewis, came to the US to work as a servant, married Trump and had four children.
The stereotypes of the two presidents' parentage are largely the opposite of their public – and probably private – characters. Obama is an intellectual (both his parents were highly educated), a focused and hard worker, ambitious at the same time routing his ambition through public service – first at a local (Chicago) level, then in the senate, then the White House. His style as president is often described as both cerebral and reflective: his speeches models of rational, sometimes inspiring rhetoric; his politics – previous to election to the left of the Democratic party spectrum – moderate. His two terms had both successes and failures: but they were conducted with dignity and grace. Obama forced white – and some black – people to question sometimes unconscious stereotypes – and in doing so, see human beings, fellow citizens.
Trump's parentage united two national stereotypes which had proclaimed rationality and self-discipline as intrinsic to the national personality. Germany has been seen – the Nazi period partly aside – as a country based on orderly processes and considered development. The Scots preferred stereotype has privileged carefulness, immersion in a trade or profession, straightforward and honest dealing, applied intelligence and respectable public behaviour.
Yet Trump is largely the opposite. Though no doubt a hard worker for his own ends, his career before the presidency had been punctuated with threats of bankruptcy after overextended and unwise investments; his media career, successful though it has been, depending largely on overhyped celebrity shows and projects, like the Trump University (closed in 2010) which was, and remains, beset with scandal and lawsuits. His presidency, also beset with scandals, has been remarkable for its mendacity: one fact-checking organisation claimed that he averaged 15 false claims a day in 2018. Keen to label all unwelcome journalism as 'fake news', he has run the most dishonest US presidential administration in the institution's history. His effect has been largely the opposite of Obama's: deliberately widening and deepening the divisions in his state for his political ends.
And so an end to stereotypes. Scots are at least as attached to them as any other nation: and have been remarkably successful in creating and advertising them, through more than two centuries – with the arch-artificer of the national stereotypes being Sir Walter Scott. A contemporary writer, Michael Fry, used his 2013 book 'A New Race of Men' to laud the Scots of the 19th century (his frame is from 1815-1914) – starting the book with examples of extraordinary bravery in the British army on the field of Waterloo in 1815, actions which 'helped to fix an image of Scotland and Scotsmen that endured right through the 19th century and beyond – indeed, has not faded yet'.
It hasn't faded yet, in part because of a slew of usually bad and sometimes-terrible films and series, portraying the medieval and Jacobite Scots as bold yet chivalrous warriors in search of national freedom, denied them by the effete English. Yet beneath these images, in our time, a popular nationalism has taken hold which, while using them from time to time, suborns them in practice.
The SNP's military posture is near to pacifism: a removal of the nuclear base at Faslane and a reduction of the armed services to coastal defence duties and peacekeeping. This, especially the first, seems to be one of the more popular strands in the SNP's policy: which points to a large part of Scots' electors electing to largely withdraw their nation from any more than a marginal part in the defence of Europe – even as it's now more menaced than it has been for decades by the rising aggression of Russia – for one of whose propaganda arms, RT, the former SNP leader and Scots first minister, Alex Salmond, now works.
A falling off is there? Yes: but every state has the right to determine its own place in the world, and should Scotland become independent, it would presumably pursue a policy of withdrawal from most of the responsibilities of common defence and leave the dirty work for others. How long would the stereotype continue after that? Hollywood and Netflix would help to maintain it, but sooner or later, reality would catch up – as it has in the US, helped by the contrasting performances of two unstereotypical presidents.