Have you filled in your census form?
It’s strange to even be asking that question more than a month after census day.
It’s always been one of those things people just did, didn’t they? One of those civic duties you watch your dad doing then graduate to when you get old and boring enough to do it yourself.
Not any more it seems.
As of this week, more than 600,000 Scottish households – one in four – have failed to return their census forms.
And that poses a bit of a problem for the Scottish Government. Not least because it’s going to cost the best part of £10 million to extend the deadline for responses.
The census, as we’ve all been told, is one of the main tools governments and other organisations use when they’re figuring out new policies.
It tells them who lives where, how their health is, how they’re doing financially and a host of other socio-economic measures.
It’s why every country in the western world carries out a census, in some shape or form.
And it’s kind of a big deal.
And I’m not sure giving people until the end of May to hand back their forms, or face a £1,000 fine, is going to fix this issue.
Not if one in four households have just decided they’re not happy with officialdom knowing all their business.
All change for this year’s Scottish census
Of course, there might be other explanations for this unprecedented shortfall.
The Scottish census was delayed by a year, due to Covid, meaning it wasn’t part of the normal UK-wide publicity campaign in 2021.
Scottish Govt currently sending people round the doors here hassling people about filling in the census. Reportedly 700K people haven't bothered in Scotland. Lots of reasons for this, but might speculate that there is a push back against authoritarianism?
— John Baird 🐶🐶 (@JohnB_Aberdeen) April 26, 2022
In England and Wales, where it went ahead as usual, the completion rate was 97% – on a par with the 95% in Scotland at the last time of asking in 2011.
I’ve seen people suggest the switch to a primarily online census might have been a factor too.
Older and vulnerable people might have struggled with the technology.
And maybe it’s just harder to ignore a chunky brown envelope sitting on the kitchen worktop than that website you keep meaning to get round to visiting when you find the time.
But 89% of households south of the border managed to submit their forms online last year, so it would be curious if the switch from paper was to blame for the massive drop-off here.
Six hundred thousand missing forms isn’t some inconsequential rounding error.
And they can’t all be down to latecomers and the technically challenged.
So what has happened to produce a result so dramatically at odds with any census that we’ve ever had before?
Questions of gender, language and the constitutional divide
Statistically, there must be a fair few people reading this who haven’t returned their forms.
I’d genuinely love to know their reasons.
And I’m curious to know if they chime with some of the theories ricocheting across social media this week.
Because here, there’s no shortage of suspicion and resentment about the questions we were asked and who was doing the asking.
There’s the constitutional divide, of course. This is Scotland in 2022. And there are plenty of refuseniks declaring they’ll be damned if they’re filling in Nicola Sturgeon’s separatist census.
There’s the trans debate. The ones who say they got as far as the question about gender identity and decided it wasn’t for them.
And then there’s the language barrier. The ones who get irate about Gaelic road signs or Billy Kay speaking Scots in the Scottish Parliament and refuse to even dignify the questions about language with an answer.
Those pouring vitriol didn’t listen to the speech although it lasts less than four minutes. They reacted to the medium, Scots, not the message. I presume they feel it somehow threatens or undermines their predominantly British identity. A psychological study may be required. https://t.co/2Osxwoq2gy
— Billy Kay (@billykayscot) April 28, 2022
And maybe, for some people, refusing to fill in the census just feels like a satisfying little act of rebellion after two years of governments micro-managing all our lives.
Wear a mask. Stand there. Don’t stand there. No hugging…
What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t fill in their stupid form?
A strong Scottish census is in all our best interests
But while the headlines screamed SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT FIASCO this week I worry that this might turn out to be an act of monumental national self-harm.
The census isn’t a political document.
Its responses are collected by the National Records of Scotland and used by the government and other service-providers to plan roads, schools, hospitals…
All the things that impact on the lives of people like you and me.
Bad data doesn’t make for good decisions.
And how can we expect policy-makers to make good decisions if they lack the information they require for one in every four households?
Bad decisions will only make existing divides deeper.
And who knows how much more suspicion and resentment that might have stirred up by the time the next census rolls round in another 10 years time?
There may be blame on the Scottish Government’s side but there’s personal responsibility too and it will be in all of our best interests if those 600,000 missing responses were to suddenly materialise between now and the end of May.