The right to count yourself out

Natasha Walter: 'This Government can't understand the wish to be a private person, uncounted, unsurveyed and unspied upon'

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Natasha Walter: 'This Government can't understand the wish to be a private person, uncounted, unsurveyed and unspied upon'

I'm sure that you did the right thing yesterday, and that you filled out your census form neatly, in black or blue ink, and didn't use joined-up writing, and didn't spill tea on it, and didn't block up the helplines with absurd queries, and didn't put "Jedi" as your religion, or "human race" as your ethnic identity, or your previous address as "Neverland", or any of the other kooky suggestions circulating on the internet.

Or did you? Last time around, in 1991, it was estimated that around a million people didn't respond to the census. And only 342 of them were prosecuted. A survey carried out just before the American census last year found that only 72 per cent of the population had decided to participate.

Why on earth are so many people reluctant to fill in a form that, as we all know, is really rather harmless, even benign? The internet is hopping with suggestions that would infuriate the statisticians. And the correspondence columns of newspapers ­ especially, interestingly, those of more right-wing newspapers ­ have been full of readers complaining about the irrationality and intrusiveness of some of the census questions.

Why, they ask, is there no box in England to declare oneself English ­ when in Scotland, there is one for Scottish? Why is there no listing for Jewish as an ethnic identity, only as a religious one? Why ask us about our religion at all? How does it help government to plan its spending if they know that we are Christian, Muslim, or none of the above?

Are such gripes just frivolous? And are the people who fail to fill in the form, or who fill it up with lies and jokes, just batty? To many people, especially people who work in government, the attitude of the individuals who complain about the census or who decide not to fill it up is baffling. After all, as we keep being told, the census is really rather cuddly. The details it collects are kept private for 100 years, and the statistics that it generates are used to track changes in population densities and allocate funding, not to hunt down tax defaulters and illegal immigrants. Of all the ways that the Government tries to keep tabs on us, it is probably the least offensive.

Last time around, it was usually stated that the million-odd non-respondents tended to be people who were angry about the poll tax. Presumably these defaulters believed that, for all the blandishments of the census-takers, somehow the information would find its way into the hands of the tax-collectors. They were wrong, but their attitude is interesting. They felt that Government had failed the most basic test, that it was no longer acting with their trust.

This time around, the census office is trying to press home the positive aspects of being counted, emphasising that funding for health authorities and local authorities is based on the numbers of people in the area. You can't argue with that, can you? But some people do. After all, raw numbers of people in a given area are poor data on which to base funding for many services. Hospitals and schools in deprived areas can testify to the fact that weighting for deprivation never seems to be enough, that they are given money according to the numbers of people they are meant to be servicing rather than the actual needs of those people.

Number-crunching in government departments is often used as a poor substitute for going out on the ground to look at the shortfalls in services and to understand the gaps between what people expect and what they get.

But most of those people who decide not to fill in the census forms aren't reacting against the census as such. They are acting out of a more general attitude of scepticism and disaffection. A lot of people in Britain don't want to oil the government machine. However ineffective and irrational it might be to do nothing, they don't want to take part, to be counted, to be coerced into the rollcall. When they see an envelope proclaiming "Count Me In!", they want to shrug and say, count me out. And when they see a little postcard popping through the door saying cheerfully, "You have a legal obligation to return your census form now; failing to complete it carries a fine of up to £1,000", their natural response is to tear it up.

That is an attitude that the Government will never understand. The old cry , "I am not a number, I am a free man", has rarely had less resonance among political classes than it does now. The attitude of the present Government is that more government is better government, and that the more they know about us, our habits, our numbers, our views, our attitudes, our earnings, our desires, the better it is for everyone.

The census may be one of the most benign aspects of that attitude, that drive to know and to control. But other aspects are much less benign. It was chilling to see, a few weeks ago, a Labour MP making the suggestion that entitlement to benefit should be linked to registration on the electoral rolls. Phil Woolas thinks that if people don't register to vote, they shouldn't be allowed to pick up their benefit cheques. To him, no doubt that sounds like an impeccable way of getting more people involved in the democratic process. But to the count-me-outers, it couldn't be more wrong.

This Government can't understand the wish to be a private person, uncounted, unsurveyed, unspied upon. This government has spent its four years in office putting through law after law that ensures that the state can be as secret as it wants, while breaking down the right of individuals to privacy.

Forget the census, look at the strong stuff. There is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, for a start, the mouthful of a law that allows government agencies to inspect private e-mails. There are the powers given to the police to take and retain DNA samples. There was the decision to make the Freedom of Information Act more about secrecy than disclosure; secrecy on any information that "would be likely to prejudice" the interests of the Government.

There was the Terrorism Act passed last year, in which it was stated that you can be called a terrorist if you simply speak at a meeting where members of proscribed organisations are present, or if you support any violence against property. Supporters of the Suffragettes would have a hard time under this government, let alone supporters of tomorrow's May Day protests.

Today, on the eve of a May Day when new anarchists will be gathering in London to protest, it may be worth remembering some of the words of old anarchists. They would have seen it as inevitable that once erstwhile liberals, men such as Jack Straw and Tony Blair, got into power, they would necessarily turn their backs on all their liberal principles. "However democratic may be men's feelings and their intentions, once they achieve the elevation of office they can only view society in the same way as a schoolmaster views his pupils, and between pupils and masters equality cannot exist." Those words were written about a hundred years ago by Mikhail Bakunin; the odd thing is that it still takes us by surprise that the same might be true today.

¿ n.walter@btinternet.com

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