Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Could and should this be the last census?

So, here's my census form (with my hand over the confidential details) - it plopped noisily through my letterbox yesterday morning, rudely disturbing my consideration of how many words I need to cut from my latest book draft! Anyway, that aside, this prompts the question: will this be the last time I get these forms?

It looks like it. The Conservative-led government has decided to get rid of the census altogether - an idea that came out of the same think-tank world that's giving you the abolition of PCTs and the ongoing farce of Higher Education 'reform'. Some of their more radical activists argued that the 2011 effort should be scrapped as well, though to no avail.

Now the census isn't perfect. In fact, the 'disappearance' of many tens of thousands of citizens who never fill it in, or appear on the electoral roll for that matter, has been having deleterious effects on statistics as far apart as immigration, population levels and crime for many years. And many governments are thinking about new ways to gather this data. Last year another minority Conservative administration - Stephen Harper's Canadian government - made the long form of the census voluntary, to great controversy and some resignations.

But the end of the census is still a self-inflicted national wound that'll hurt for many decades to come.

It'll be impossible for historians like myself to look back to street, village and town levels of data - something that 'microhistories' of the past forty years have really drawn on to make history come alive. And the recent vogue for finding out 'who we are' - family history - will be dead and buried from now on. Want to know exactly where your family lived, and with whom? You won't be able to. These are academic concerns, to be sure - but they're non-trivial. What's the point of living at all if no trace of you is to be left? What does it mean to be 'British'? What if you want to conceptualise and order your past, but you can't? That's enough of the rhetoric questions, but you get the point.

It makes us citizens rather than images and numbers captured by mobile phone companies and supermarkets. It gives us rights to match the responsibilities we record. It captures our history. It gives us more accurate sub-national data. Try as you might, it'd difficult to argue with those four welcome capacities and advances. Abolish the census at your peril.

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