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'

Share
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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?