In 2022, in Scotland, we have possibly the most controversial census since the Romans made heavily pregnant Mary travel miles on a donkey then give birth in a stable. This tool: which should give us a historical record of the nation and inform effective policy, instead stands accused of being politicised, creating division, and making state interventions less efficient and beneficial.
In this article, I look at some of the commentary, controversial questions and the context of how states measure us, how their choices shape our reality, and what we can tell from this census and other examples.
Our English word census comes from Latin – in ancient Rome a census every 5 years would determine citizens’ tax and military service responsibilities. The modern British census has been taken in England, Wales and Scotland every 10 years since 1801 with the exception of 1941, and now 2021. It’s the progeny of a noble heritage of interrogative surveys stretching back to the Domesday book and beyond.
How the State Sees Us, Changes Us.
The Quantum Observer Effect tells us that at the quantum level, the very act of observing changes what is being observed.
Similarly, a history of state interventions tells us the census and other ways the state observes us do not only describe the population but prescribe our reality.
In “Seeing Like a State – How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” Professor of political science at Yale, James C Scott outlines what motivates state measurement and shows how the tools are anything but neutral.
As the modern nation-state grew out of feudalism the centralisation of power in states created a challenge of opacity. States strained to see clearly in three key areas.
Property, Produce & People
The property, the produce and the people. Three areas that it was critical to the state to understand for the primary pressures of evolving tithes into taxes, understanding food security and estimating military manpower for conscription.
The land was first described, then mapped, to record land rights usage. Cadastral mapping then designated and prescribed grossly oversimplified rights and purposes. This shaped early modern society. Where previously common land had seen flexible usage by local conventions that could adapt with the environmental and social conditions, cadastral mapping cemented inflexible property rights and led to monocultural deserts of forest that increased short-term gains while damaging long-term ecological and economic viability.
Produce was to be measured and taxed. – Where local regions had their own units centralised units were imposed. We see an early example of this in the Oscan market measures replaced with Roman ones in Pompeii, and later how the French metre and metric system was imposed on the regions of France. Much like common currencies, these standardisations had some benefits for consumers and traders but still faced local resistance – as we still see with metric and imperial measures in the UK today.
People were measured and categorised in more centralised and standardised ways. Casual descriptive occupational, locative and genitive nicknames ( John the baker, George under the hill, and William – James’s son.) became patriarchal heirloom surnames such as Baker, Underhill and Jameson.
This happened slowly in late mediaeval Europe, and quickly in colonies such as the Philippines where people were simply designated a Spanish surname overnight for the sake of helping the state’s administration track them clearly.
I use these examples not to say they are inherently good or bad – they can be used for either. There are many benefits to standardisation – and codified rights are easier to protect – and to inherit – when there is a paper trail of a surname. And of course, once you have paid a tax once it is in your interests for a state record to prove you have paid it. The point is that in what they choose to measure, the state shapes us and the world.
When the state looks at a cadastral map of a monoculture acre it is identical to every other acre marked the same. If the state measures 2 blacksmiths of military age, they are identical, not individuals, and decisions made on that basis may impact them very differently.
The census is a filter, where the state decides what information is caught, and what slips through. What is caught becomes the reality the state sees, and so shapes reality through state interventions – and this has important implications.
Count me in, Count me out.
The Scottish Census of 2022 is different from the ones that preceded it here and in the rest of the UK. It has been deliberately made different – and therefore it has been made less useful for its stated purposes of creating a historical record, and informing policy.
Future historians will not have the same quality of historic records. They will no longer be able to make the same decade-interval assessments of the whole population of the UK, because the Scottish government has taken the Scottish census out of step by a year, for no very good reason.
Anyone living in Scotland last year and England this year will be missing from the record from 2011 to 2032.
While the census went ahead everywhere else in the UK in 2021, it was delayed to 2022 in Scotland. It also means that, potentially, people will appear on multiple censuses – having moved from another home nation to Scotland in the past year – or may appear on neither census.
Essentially: it’s made it harder to inform UK-wide policies. The official reason that the survey was delayed from 2021 to 2022 was because of the pandemic – however, given that it went ahead without incident in the rest of the country, and that we held an election in 2021, this is hard to justify. Harder still to justify the £21.6 million the delay itself cost.
The 2022 Scottish census, perhaps uniquely, tells us more about the people asking the questions than those who answer them.
The Nationalist Scottish Government claim that their census design is
“…backed by research, testing, and best practice. Designing the questionnaire like this will boost data quality”ScotGov Census Site
Journalist Jonathan Brocklebank noted
“…in the litany of questions on sexual orientation, gender identity, national identity, ethnicity and understanding of Gaelic and Scots it occurred to me that this census was not so much a snapshot of a nation’s citizens but of a government’s obsessions”Jonathan Brocklebank
Yes, First Minister.
A fig-leaf of ‘public support’ can be retrospectively created to justify chosen policies. The technique is backwards induction from the desired policy to build a funnel of leading questions. This is most famously demonstrated in the classic British political satire “Yes, Minister”. The quintessential machiavellian civil servant Sir Humphrey shows how two different paths of leading questions, can lead parliamentary aide Bernard to contradictory answers.
- Are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?
- Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?
- Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?
- Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?
- Do you think they’ll respond to a challenge?
- Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?
- Are you worried about the danger of war?
- Are you worried about the growth of armaments?
- Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?
- Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?
- Would you oppose the reintroduction of conscription?
In designating our social constructs, the state seeks to construct society.
Ethnicity, Gender, Nationality… Who gets to define your identity?
To some people, these are immutable facts, designated or defined at birth. To others, they are a Smörgåsbord to choose from, a correction to make, or a variable that may be different things at different times and indifferent circumstances. For many of us, they are somewhere in the middle.
Here are commonly accepted definitions for Race, Ethnicity and Nationality – we will refer back to these when we look at how the census deals with them.
As to a definition of Gender, there isn’t one that we can say is commonly accepted. There are people who say there are two genders, people who say there are 72, and others who draw differences depending on Gender Identity, Expression and presentation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) note that gender is a social construction that people typically describe in terms of femininity and masculinity. In Western cultures, people associate femininity with women and masculinity with men, but this social construction varies across cultures.
The Scottish Census deals with these social constructs very differently as we shall see: and we can estimate from this why they do so and what they hope to gain. In looking at the following consider that some of these questions carry a £1000 fine for not, or for ‘incorrectly’ answering.
Gender – Optional?
What is your sex, male or female? What is your trans status?
The census does not directly ask “what is your gender” it asks “What is your sex – Male or Female” – a compulsory question with a forced binary. Then a voluntary question that gives you an option to describe your ‘trans status” with a freeform box, that could be used to write in an alternative gender. No predetermined trans-status boxes are there to be ticked.
What do you feel is your national identity?
Of all the terms, nationality should the clearest, and most specific meaning. it’s “The legal sense of belonging to a specific nation-state.”
Note this – The Scottish Census does NOT actually ask you what nationality you are.
The Nationalists have a problem with the actual definition of nationality because in the legal sense – it is synonymous with citizenship. And the answers on British censuses are that either someone is a British citizen or they are not.
As Scotland is part of the UK, there is no separate Scottish citizenship as an alternative to UK citizenshipScotland.org
That is no use to a Nationalist government who wish Scots to be a different nationality from other parts of the country.
There is no legal definition of a Scottish citizen – it’s a social construct. You might ‘know’ whether or not someone is Scottish, but a Welsh woman living in Scotland has the same rights, nationality, citizenship as someone who was born in Scotland. We’re not divided yet. This is an important point to bear in mind, because the question of Scottish citizenship, should there ever be independence, is a can of worms.
So look again at this question which you can be fined £1,000 if you answer inaccurately.
What do you feel is your national identity – tick all that apply – from Scottish, English, Northern Irish, Welsh, British and Other.
The Scottish government wish that there was a legal difference between being a Scottish National, and being an English or British National.
Diogenes of Sinope, the cynic, the proto-stoic, rejected the concept of Nationalism in favour of a position that recognised the equality of humans.
“When someone asks where you are from, do not say; this place, or ‘that city-state’ – say instead you are a citizen of the world (Kosmopolitan)”.Diogenes of Sinope
There are some people who find that 72 genders are 70 too many. It fascinates me that by this question on nationality, just for people who identify with one of more parts of the UK and even ignoring the option other, there are 325 possible nationalities from the combinations.
Does each of these have its own classification code? Are we to be tabulated by the state into 325+ demographics? Do we need 325 national identities in Scotland?
When the fact is that for all legal intents and purposes these could be boiled down to British. Note that British is put last. In online surveys best practice is to randomise the order of multiple choice answers because distribution can cause bias.
As I’ll come to later, I think some of the reaction to this question is not just what is being asked but, because it is nationalists who are asking it, people are questioning perhaps for the first time why – what will be done with this data? Will future political advertising be targeted to an individual or even aggregated datasets?
The suspicion, and the lesson from history, is that somewhere down the line, people will be treated differently based on the answers they give here and that certain answers may disadvantage you.
The similar question in the English / Welsh Survey is less aggressively emotional.
What is your Ethnic Group?
We’ve seen how the Gender questions were first binary and compulsory for sex, and free-form, and optional for trans status.
The nationality question – which based on the definition of nationality should have been straightforward, legal, and factual, was made an emotional judgement call – where multiple options could be selected giving several hundred possible combinations.
The question on ethnicity does the opposite. Where Ethnicity is normally defined as cultural characteristics – that can change including dress, hairstyles, accent and cultural behaviours, instead, we see four things –
i) A funnelling into single compulsory predetermined pigeonholes.
ii) Conflation of Ethnicity (Cultural) & Race (Physical)
iii) Combining Ethnicities in contradictory and inconsistent ways
iv) Making some ethnic identities difficult to express, or non-standardised
The question on ethnicity is not an entirely new one, but it has taken on additional meaning in the context of the threat of ethnic nationalism in Scotland, and there are new aspects to it – it is phrased differently here than in other parts of the UK.
This is a multi-branch question, with many options that have developed over the years with testing on colour terminology.
Here is how the white category is asked in most of the United Kingdom:
And here is how it is asked in Scotland:
The “Scottish” and “Other British” classifications in the census are not new and were not introduced under the SNP. However, In the rest of the United Kingdom, Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh, English and British are one option.
In the Scottish Survey, “Scottish” is on its own, in primary position, and “Other British” is separated. It should also be noticed that every ethnic social construct except for White, Scottish and British are not designated separately.
So under white, along with a range of Irish, Polish, and ‘Showman or Showwoman”
As an interesting aside the new white ethnicity of Showman and Showwoman are occupational, referring to white people who work on travelling shows: but uniquely the ethnicity has been binary gendered.
- Other British
For many other ethnicities apparently Scottish and British undifferentiated.
- Pakistani, Scottish Pakistani or British Pakistani
- Indian, Scottish Indian or British Indian
- Bangladeshi, Scottish Bangladeshi or British Bangladeshi
- Chinese, Scottish Chinese or British Chinese
- African, Scottish African or British African
- Arab, Scottish Arab or British Arab
Though in other suggestions, Black people are prompted to only add Scottish
and Jews and Sikhs are not prompted to be Scottish or British
What can we tell from this? At best this is poorly and inconsistently designed. At worst it seems if you are already a minority, the Scottish government do not distinguish your identity if your ethnicity is Scottish or British – but if you are white they want to differentiate the “Ethnic Scots” from British.
The format of this question is a “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy.
The implication, the leading in the question, is that if someone’s ethnicity is Scottish, they don’t get to select British. Here we see how the phrasing of the state shapes us because, undeniably, to be Scottish is to be British.
In fact – Scotland has been British far, far, longer than we’ve been Scottish. Some of the earliest historical records in North Britain – the wooden tablets preserved at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall, record the local tribes as ‘Britunculi’ (The little Britains). Even that bastion of nationalist historical documents the Declaration of Arbroath records how when the Scots invaded here and colonised us from Ulster they first “fought the British then committed genocide against the Picts”
But, essentially, the question seems loaded against one of the two dichotomies that over a decade of nationalism has imposed upon us.
Do you believe representation is important?
In “Seeing like the state” Scott tells us how measurements of the authoritarian-tending state move from being descriptive to prescriptive.
Scottish ethnic nationalists that don’t feel British can happily tick the top box. They have representation.
People who feel both Scottish and British can’t tick anywhere. Even the option to write in another nationality is phrased as though it is excluding any of the options above.
What is the impact of this – well, Scots who have, since the 2014 campaign, realised how important their ethnic British identity is to them, now feel they are not represented. They have been removed as a selectable option. To see how politically charged this is, think if it was done for any of the other ethnicities listed in the census.
Playing devils advocate again, the argument could be made that it is possible for people to select “Other” and write in “Scottish British” or “British Scot” or “Ulster-Scot” or “British English” – However this is not equity in representation because of the way that data is tabulated. Because there is no standard phrasing here, those expressing a similar sentiment will not be counted as a demographic that should be taken into account in policy. They are relegated to ‘other’. To miscellaneous. The state standardises the measure, and what data that isn’t the right shape is less legible.
These things matter: as we are seeing reports of the 2020 census in the United States. Undercounting of minorities not only skews data, but the inaccuracies are having a real impact on the number of political representatives districts get.
Is there a medical difference between being Scottish and being British?
To an ethnic nationalist, there is a difference. The medical answer of course, is that there isn’t a medical difference. In Scotland we’ve now been asked this ethnicity question twice in 6 months and the first time was in a medical context.
Perhaps what has made this question so suspect is that it’s not the first time we’ve been asked it recently. While, apparently, the census was delayed due to covid many people were shocked to be asked – when getting their vaccination booster, if they were “Scottish or British”.
There may be relevant medical reasons for asking this: to track booster uptake and penetration into vulnerable ethnic groups, but for many it was an unexpected and unwelcome question at an unsettling time; having socially distantly queued to get a vaccination or booster.
If you can imagine twin brothers, brought up together in Hamilton, who disagree politically – and you can imagine one of them answering Scottish, and one answering British, then it’s clear that that this ethnic division makes no sense as a medical differentiator.
These identity games are subverting the most valid reason for the state to track ethnicity
Reducing hate crime is a noble aim, and to reduce things they must be measured: and good ethnicity data from the census should have a part to play in it.
Which is more prevalent in Scotland: Anglophobia or Anti-Pakistani racism?
This is a disputed question. Ask different people in Scotland about Anglophobia and you will get wildly different answers.
Some will report current, regular & direct experience or witnessing of it, others will insist there’s none at all, (and that even if there is it isn’t really racism anyway.)
In the period from when Scottish nationalists came to power, up to the referendum, the Scottish Government’s own figures on racist incidents do not track Scotland wide incidents of Anglophobia.
They do, however, record a spike in racist incidents where the police were involved and the victim or complainer identified as “white-British”. Indeed, to our shame, white-British rose as a demographic to equal Pakistani as the most likely to be a victim or reporter of a racist incident.
When confronted with this as a possible corroboration of the anecdotal rise in Anglophobia Scottish nationalists have been quick to point out this doesn’t record Anglophobia and some even claimed it recorded anti-Scottish racism from “British others”.
It’s interesting to note that in this other measure from the state of ethnicity, the exact opposite of the census format has been recorded.
In the census, Scottish is carefully segregated from “Other British” to stress difference. In victim reporting “White British” is used here as a catch-all term making it impossible to separate the Scottish, Welsh, English and others.
As it turns out there’s more data available than it initially seems from the aggregate nationwide data. Most police forces in Scotland, when recording this data, used a 21 category ethnic classification system that included options for White Scottish, White English, White Welsh, White Northern Irish and White British among others. However, Scotland’s most racist city, Glasgow, used an old 7 point classification that just identified White British – so the majority of the data was dumbed down into the blunt classification.
So how much Anglophobia is there and what’s the trend?
It’s possible that Glasgow has now moved to the new 21 sector classification – which would mean there should be Scotland-wide data on racist incidents where the victim or reporter is English, white or otherwise, …but the publication of these racist incidents seems to have stopped in 2014.
Both police measures of ethnicity are incompatible with the census measure of ethnicity.
Even if this data was available, the full measure is not calculable. One of the key measures used to determine racist discrimination is to express the number of attacks as a ratio per 10,000 people of that race …using census data.
Yet by making the census only record Scottish or ‘Other British’ , and by Scotland’s most racist city not differentiating ‘White Scottish’ from ‘British other’, this is not possible to do for White English – and ; while on the Census Pakistani, Pakistani Scottish and Pakistani British are recorded – Pakistani English is never accorded an ethnic box to tick.
Plus: what is actually being recorded is the ethnicity of the reporter of the incident. If a white Scot reports an attack they have witnessed against a Pakistani Scot, it is recorded as a racist incident under white Scot. If a Pakistani English person suffers an Anglophobic attack, it is indistinguishable in the figures from a Pakistani Scottish person suffering an anti-Pakistani attack.
The point I’m making is – Anglophobia is made invisible.
What the state doesn’t measure the state doesn’t see. Maybe it’s rising, maybe it’s dropping, maybe it’s negligible – but when you have a data-obsessed state spending millions to ask about 72 genders, 350 ways you feel nationally, and if you are ethnically Scottish – as well as about racist incidents and even want schools to ask how much anal sex 14 year olds are having in non-anonymised data – doesn’t it seem remaining wilfully ignorant that they don’t choose to measure this?
Scottish Government Policy on Anglophobia
The Scottish government does actually have a policy on anglophobia – if something risks going viral then after a few days Nicola Sturgeon will half-heartedly condemn it on TV blaming a minority that are nothing to do with her, while failing to reprimand any SNP politicians who have retweeted it or expressed similar sentiments.
In all police forces except for Glasgow data is actually recorded that would show when the victim or reporter of the racist incident is English, but it can’t be benchmarked against the population and I don’t see it shared.
By making it bureaucratically impossible to measure anglophobia they make sure there is no official record of past Anglophobia, which means there is no policy in the present to deal with Anglophobia and so no resources to reduce anglophobia in the future. Or to put it another way- “Whoever controls the past controls the present, whoever controls the present controls the future”
So should we fill in the census?
“A project of legibility is imminent in any statecraft that aims at manipulating society, but it is undermined by intrastate rivalries, technical obstacles, and, above all, the resistance of its subjects.”
I asked this on twitter – here are the results.
The short answer is, legally – yes, or you could face a £1,000 fine. But on consideration, I think there is another reason. This census, imperfect and biased, will still be used as a basis for decisions. It could be better to be counted.
In the United States 2020 census, which the populist Trump halted the count on a month early, minorities have been significantly undercounted. On the one hand that might mean they are less visible to the state for persecution – but decisions like the number of political representatives a ward has, and possibly what spending, are being decided without these communities being taken into account.
Even with the bias, it is still an important document that will provide data for bodies not under nationalist control now and in the future. The potential for malignant misuse is large, but the United Kingdom also has beneficial state interventions, it’s likely still outweighed by the potential upside. The census makes us more legible, even in imperfect translation.
I’ve no doubt it will be used, as a minimum, as a source of Nationalist propaganda. I suspect it might be used, as the SNP and Scottish government have done so many times before, outside of correct data usage. They may well use it to target their nationalists and election propaganda.
Looking at the Map above, it says it’s from the 2011 UK census data. What will this map look like on the future? Well, first: it won’t be possible to create a UK wide map with the same supposition of accuracy. The Scottish data will be from 12 months later than the rest of the country. Second; think back to how the ‘nationality’ question was asked; you were able to tick all that applied. How is that shown in this map here? Is it only counting people who ticked one box? Of someone ticked Scottish and British and Irish (to represent for example being an Ulster-Scot) then how would they appear here? And when selecting the data to show in the visualisation, we can expect that someone looking to show a trend or make a point can pick between Nationality and Ethnicity, which both have these British / Scottish / Welsh etc. Options, depending on what fits the narrative best.
It might well be argued that “this shows more people are Scottish, not British, so want independence” or “There’s been a huge miraculous uptake in Gaelic speaking that shows our millions spent on Gaelic roadsigns are finally having an effect.” For all we know, your answers might be used to support or deny some future citizenship status.
The census and the data collected are not good or bad in themselves. (Although there’s bias and poor practice) A stark warning from history in this case is from the unusually detailed census and state data held in the Netherlands in the 1930s – which was then used to map, trace, and deport the Jewish population in the 1940s.
“The legibility merely amplifies the capacity for the state for discriminating interventions – a capacity that in principle could as easily have been deployed to feed the Jews as to deport them.”Seeing Like A State – Scott
So it comes down to if you trust the Scottish Government, and the UK government, and the interventions they will make using the data.
Can we trust the SNP Scottish Government with your data?
The current nationalist SNP Scottish government has long played fast and loose with our data – and sought ever more intrusive ways to intervene in our lives. They suck in ever more data about Scots, they look to centralise it and make your private data available to multiple departments, they fail to inform you what they intend to do with it, and then they don’t handle it legally, safely or securely.
The Scottish Government have breached GDPR more than 2,000 times
Since it was introduced. They have tried to breach the European Convention on Human rights with their named person policy – a policy that would have created a comprehensive file on every Scot from birth, that a ‘named person’ on behalf of the state would have monitored on behalf of the state.
Most recently they breached GDPR breach with the covid app: The UK’s data watchdog has reprimanded ScotGov for failing to inform people of how their personal information would be used by the official Covid Status app.
Before that on one of their many campaigns for an imminent second independence referendum that they have had since the last one, “Scotland’s referendum site” https://www.ref.scot/ – the very same site that collected the ringfenced £600k that then went missing, also got the SNP into trouble for not telling people how they would use their data.
Even today the privacy link on that site, a requirement by law, goes to a page that doesn’t exist!
While the site is promoted by Peter Murrell, it was set up by one “Christian Jones” – the SNPs data manager at the time, and used the controversial US software “Nationbuilder” – a political propaganda targeting tool.
Control, Alt, Delete.
The way the State chooses to measure and categorise us has the power to control us, alter reality, and even delete cultural identity. In the Kafkaesque bureaucratic state what isn’t measured doesn’t exist, and what’s obsessed over is magnified. How we classify these things matters because the state uses them to justify policies and decisions. Like the phrenologist with their callipers, who can spot the criminal type by the bumps on their head: or the eugenicists with their ideas on good breeding & sterilisation.
The census seems to have been designed to differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK. Even admitting some of these questions are inherited, in our political landscape, so different from 2011, there is a strong case they should have been redesigned. In the forced ethnic definitions, in taking it a year out of step…
The very least we can say is that – as a tool to inform policy decisions, it is poorly designed. If the purpose is to justify policy decisions that have already been taken – this would explain a lot.
“State officials can often make their categories stick and impose their simplifications, because the state, of all institutions, is best equipped to insist on treating people according to its schemata. Thus categories that may have begun as the artificial inventions of cadastral surveyors, census takers, judges, or police officers can end by becoming categories that organise people’s daily experience precisely because they are embedded in state-created institutions that structure that experience… …In dictatorial settings where there is no effective way to assert another reality, fictitious facts-on-paper can often be made eventually to prevail on the ground.”Seeing Like A State