After more than two centuries, capitalism has decided it doesn’t really need to know what’s going on in Britain – and that the census should go...
In 1801 Britain held its first census. At that time, as an industrial nation emerged, there was an understanding that the country needed to know how many mouths it had to feed, what the workforce might be, how many people might be available for the armed forces, and so on.
Extract from the 1901 census (Edinburgh).
More than 200 years later, capitalism has decided it no longer needs to know such things. In a consultation put out by Francis Maude, one of the last survivors from the Thatcher cabinets, it proposes instead online surveys and the use of other existing government-collected data.
The trained enumerators who went from house to house for each census will be replaced by SurveyMonkey. Though the cost of the census is cited as the reason, in reality, as ever, it is not about money. The Financial Times estimates the entire Office for National Statistics budget for the current financial year is about 0.03 per cent of total public spending – or about 6p a person per week.
Since the latter half of the 20th century the collection of data has never been important to government. Thatcher’s Rayner Review cut statistical services by a quarter, while in 2006 the Blair government moved the Office from London to Newport in south Wales, losing many experienced staff in the process. Yet the 2011 census showed that there were almost half a million more people living in Britain than estimates based on other data sources had suggested. Our ability to understand, as a nation, who lives here, and who has come here from abroad, is at stake.
Statisticians consider the census as a way of linking up the information obtained from many other sources to provide small-area statistics which enable the planning of education, healthcare, public transport, etc. So if the census were to be abandoned, our ability to understand health inequalities, for example, would suffer. We would not know how many bedrooms there are, nor how many people occupy them, how many graduates are available for employment in a particular part of the country, and so on.
Presumably the capitalists and their politicians today consider that population and public services – like everything else – can be left to the “Market”, so really what need is there for planning based on the needs of the population?
Cancellation of the 2011 census was seriously considered when the coalition government crept into power in 2010, but plans were too far advanced. The last time a census was cancelled was in 1941, when we were at war with fascism. Information from the previous 1931 census provided support for many of the gains won in the peace, the NHS and education. Will the dictatorship of finance capital we now live under be permitted to stop the next one? ■