No doubt a Martian arriving on earth for the first time would perceive little difference between an inhabitant of Great Britain and an inhabitant of New Britain (off the coast of New Guinea), except perhaps that the former showed a greater propensity than the latter to get drunk and scream in public. Similarity and difference are what G.E. Moore would have called non-natural qualities, and are in the eye of the beholder: as a woman was overheard to remark in a Dublin bus, now that the Emerald Isle has become an El Dorado, ‘Russians, Nigerians, Chinese, they all look the same to me.’
It was Freud who remarked on the narcissism of small differences: but what, exactly, are small differences? As I travel between Britain and France, I notice a lot of differences, but whether they are large or small I cannot say with any certainty.
On the other hand, I see a lot of similarities when I read the newspapers. For example, the other day on the front page of Le Monde, I saw the following headlines of stories:
‘Record overcrowding in French prisons’
‘Youth in peril: students eat badly, take drugs and don’t look after their health’
Gosh, I thought, it could be England. Of course, when you read further, you discover that French students are some way behind the English. Indeed, they seem, by our exalted standards, touchingly well-behaved. Only 33 per cent of French male students drink beer more than once or twice a week, for example, whereas in England you would get the same figure for those who drank beer more than once or twice a day.
As to prisoners, the French have 20,000 fewer of them than we do, though the overcrowding is more severe because they have fewer prison places.