Why there’s no consensus on the 2011 census

The opposition to the census confirms what ‘liberty’ has been reduced to: a narcissistic desire to separate oneself from society.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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On Sunday, householders in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were meant to be spending 10 minutes or so writing down names and ticking boxes as part of the 2011 UK census. The point of it was, as the coverage never tired of reminding us, to provide a ‘snapshot’ of the British population, from our proficiency at English to our occupation, at this particular point in time.

But that wasn’t the only snapshot. From the paranoid angst of those opposed to the census to the state’s willingness to slap a £1,000 fine on anyone unwilling to participate in the census, we also had a snapshot of a society uneasy with being measured and named, and a state unable to convince people of the merits of such measuring and naming – hence the recourse to financial threats.

All of which is a little perplexing given that rendering society a measurable and nameable entity ought not to be such a problematic idea. The first modern census in 1801 consisted of five questions designed to establish little more than the number of people living in each household, their gender and their occupation. Yes, there was opposition to the notion of a census, as one MP made clear in 1783 when arguing that it would ‘impair the liberty of the individual’ and act as a ‘most effectual engine of rapacity and repression’. And yes, as the number of questions on the census expanded over the next 200 years, it tended to reveal as much about the attitudes and prejudices of the time as it did about the make-up of the population – the 1911 census, for instance, asked if any member of household was ‘lunatic, imbecile or feeble-minded’.

But the attempt to get a handle on just how many people lived in particular areas, the attempt to establish what they did for a living, and the attempt to grasp more complex demographics such as age and nationality, did serve a practical function. It allowed the state to administer services and implement a national infrastructure in a more effective fashion.

Today, however, the merits and purpose of conducting a census every 10 years seems to have been lost. This hasn’t just affected the state and its inability to conduct a census without threatening the population with considerable fines. The loss of what the census is about has affected those opposing it, too.

The principal form of opposition to the census is the idea that it is part of an Orwellian plot to manage and control the population. Campaign group Big Brother Watch, for instance, plays up the intrusiveness of the current census: ‘[It] includes intrusive questions on your proficiency in English, your health, when you last worked, the identities of your overnight guests and the type of central heating you have.’ The civil-liberties organisation NO2ID has been similarly perturbed by the census as a form of state snooping and monitoring: ‘There is no reason to be proud of being tallied like cattle. There is every reason to oppose the waste and the intrusion. There is a long history of public resentment of the census.’

NO2ID is right, of course. There has been a long history of opposition to the census. But opposition in the past was of a different nature. For a start, the census historically had always been tied up with taxation, whereas now the tax system is entirely independent. And secondly, the census was not completed by householders themselves but by census officials who would forcibly make their way into people’s homes. Given this combination of a tax-seeking state and invasive officialdom, it is little wonder that that eighteenth-century MP called the census a ‘most effectual engine of rapacity and repression’.

Yet today, no such tax-collecting invasiveness is apparent. And this is the strange paradox to the Orwell-flecked criticism of the census. No sooner has the census been attacked for being intrusive and a potential source of repression than its critics point out just how useless it is. It’ll be out of date, they say. It’ll be inaccurate, they point out. And besides, as one census sceptic argues, ‘there are so many other sources of demographic information these days – from supermarket loyalty cards to government databases – that the census could usefully be pared back to its original purpose [of population counting]’.

In fact, this idea that the census is incredibly invasive yet simultaneously superfluous because the state will know this information already via the numerous other, more regularly updated databases, from tax returns to the electoral register, repeats itself in almost all the criticisms of the census. Which raises the question: what exactly is so threatening about a survey that replicates that which the state already knows?

That seems to be the problem with opposing the census on civil-liberties grounds today. It seems to have less to with what the census is, with what it does, than with a more general, almost narcissistic anxiety about not wanting to be reduced to a mere member of society. This anxiety, this fear of being identified as part of the social mass, is reflected in the repeated use of ‘cattle’ to describe the census. Here the liberty of the individual seems to amount to little more than not being part of society; not being named and numbered as one of its members. To be fully individual is to escape definition, whether that refers to a categorisable competency in English or one’s marital status.

Criticising the confused, angsty opposition to the census is not in anyway to exonerate the fine-happy actions of the state in 2011. Instead of having the conviction and wherewithal to explain why participating in a national census might be socially beneficial, the state has opted for financial coercion instead. While the census itself might not be authoritarian, the state is doing its best to convince its critics otherwise.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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