The Census

We’re all due to provide our personal details to the Census Office on 21 March. The National Census is a ten-yearly exercise In collecting data but, every time, the data collected are slightly different. We are told that they are required by the great data controller in the sky so that the civil service will have the knowledge needed to govern us better – or something like that. The first post-Domesday Book census was carried out in 1801 by ‘enumerators’, as most people couldn’t read or write. It was also based in part on Church records of baptisms, weddings and burials for that year and the previous 100 years to give comparisons. Some say that census was to find out how many able-bodied men there were who could fight in the long-running Napoleonic wars, while others say that it was to enable the government to know if there would be enough food to eat. Whatever the reason, it recorded that Great Britain then had a population of 9 million. The 1841 census,  though, was the first census recognisably similar to the ones we now fill in. For the first time it recorded people's names, alongside their age, sex, occupation and birthplace. Thirty years later, another column in the census asked whether anyone in the household was blind, deaf and dumb, imbecile or idiot, or a lunatic. Subtle. From 1951 until 1991, households were asked if they had an outside toilet.  References to "housewife" were seen in the 1971 and 1981 census, but by the ‘90s it was replaced with the gender-neutral option "looking after the home or family".

Unless Heather volunteers, I shall respond, online, to this year’s crop of questions. Apart from the standard questions, we are asked to reply, on a voluntary basis, about our ethnic origin, gender and religion. Obviously I shall have to give detailed thought to the first two, but the third will be easier. Religious belief was included in the census in 1851. It asked clergy to record average congregations. It was feared “irreligion”, and so immorality, was spreading because of a lack of churches in urban areas for the working classes to go to. However, it was also feared that non-conformist churches would overstate their numbers to assert greater legitimacy than the Church of England. And so, the religious question did not return to the census until 2001.

Leading up to that Census, there was an online campaign to try to persuade people to record their religion as Jedi. As a result 390,000 people adopted the Star Wars religion (including me). It was the fourth most popular religion in the UK. Ten years later, the number of Jedi believers had fallen somewhat – I had by then become an apostate - but at 176,632, it was still the UK's seventh most popular "religion". Those two censuses also showed a fall in Christianity. In 2001, 72% of people described themselves as Christian, but a decade later, that had dropped to 59%. The percentage of those saying they had no religion rose from 15% to 25%.  it is expected that it will rise again this year, but it will be interesting to see if this is the case, or whether the sort of fashionable new age ‘spirituality’, as promoted by many, not very bright, celebrities, morphs into ‘religion (other)’.

Although we are all somewhat different, as recorded by the census, we all share similarities common to our era. In the early part of the 20th century, most people would indeed have had an outside toilet. They would have said that they were Christians and would not have thought of trying to self-define their gender. In other ways, however, we have gone full circle. In those days, owning a house was not as common as it became in the latter half of the twentieth century and especially post-Thatcher. In this century, though, with absurdly high house prices, we have an increasing population of ‘generation rent’.

In the days before the creation of the NHS and before medicine had made very substantial progress, people relied on ‘natural remedies’. My mother was prescribed something by the local herbalist in Cardiff because, not surprisingly, during the war she had problems with her ‘nerves’. What she was given, I don’t know, but she said it worked. Now, of course, most of us rely on our scientifically trained medicos and our heroes, the drug companies, which, prior to the pandemic were anti-heroes, heavily criticised for making money their priority, rather than producing drugs at affordable prices. But, in parallel  with this, we seem to be willing to buy natural remedies, which have no scientific basis, this time not for want of anything-else, but because of fashion and the need for celebrity influencers to make money out of something.

Almost exactly 100 years before we saw the first cases of Covid, there was a worldwide outbreak of the Spanish flu which killed 228.000 people in the UK alone. It lasted for two years – 1918 and 1919 - until it mutated to become less virulent. It was thought to have been helped to spread by the vast movements of soldiers returning from the Great War and the crowded living conditions which then existed. And of course we’re now seeing that the effect of Covid is greatest amongst those living in poorer areas where, although there are now indoor toilets, there are a lot of people, old and young, living under the same roof. The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had promised 'a land fit for heroes' following World War One. At the time of the 1921 census, however, after a short post-war boom, the increasing numbers of demobilised soldiers, no longer employees of and paid by the state, found it very difficult to get work. Deprivation was widespread amongst the working classes. We shall have to see what happens to the unemployment rate when our furlough scheme stops.

Also in 1921, in the wake of the UK’s financial difficulties, the Geddes Report was published. Known as the ‘Geddes Axe’, it recommended heavy cuts in education, public health and workers' benefits. That may sound familiar, austerity being the government’s natural reaction after the 2008 financial crash. But the Geddes Axe ultimately caused major economic problems and social unrest. Those cuts were in part directed at re-creating the financial success of the Empire with, at its core, the gold standard. Abandoned during the war, it was reintroduced in 1925 by Churchill on the back of the cuts, together with increased interest rates in order to support a higher value for the pound. This put up prices and ultimately helped to cause the Depression, when we were forced to abandon the gold standard yet again - just in time for the 1931 census.

Boris has promised us that we shall relive the glory days of empire, but that we shall not suffer from a 21st century Geddes Axe. We seem to have decided that indebtedness is not the terrible thing we thought it was. With existing benign market conditions continuing into a rosy future, apparently we shall be able simply to grow our way out of our massive indebtedness. To do this we shall no doubt take advantage of the trading opportunities bestowed upon us by visionaries, like Liz Truss and Boris himself, who persuaded the country to vote for Brexit and freedom. Quite how the remaining 27 countries of the EU will survive, whilst remaining in servitude to the European Commission, remains uncertain. Maybe, by the time they have finally realised the folly of sticking together as a trading block, we shall be able to mount a takeover bid - so creating a new empire on our own doorstep? ...Or maybe not...

Paul Buckingham

15 March 2021

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