Roy Beers: Is there any sense in oor ain wee Scottish census?

scotland's census

Are you Trans?  What’s your religion, and do you by any chance speak, understand or write Gaelic …or auld Scots?

To those whose immediate gut response to these and many other questions might be “mind your own business” the Scottish Government, whose national census was originally due for completion on May 1, has the definitive Scottish answer – it could cost you a fine of up to £1,000 if you don’t complete it.

Still, hundreds of thousands have blanked all the blandishments and potential penalties and failed to pay heed.  As a result, what tabloids would traditionally write up as “red faced government chiefs” have postponed the deadline by four weeks.

In a news story which I suspect failed to set any heather on fire – there’s quite a lot going on both at home and abroad – it appeared a few days ago that about a quarter of households had either not got around to filling in the admittedly tedious questionnaire (online, unless you had requested a paper version) or had just decided to rubber the exercise altogether and hope it would go away.

Well, amid various other real life issues which seemed more pressing – the standard excuse, I suppose – I was one of the guilty one in four who put McCensus in the “haud me back”category, and allowed it first to gather figurative dust, then cobwebs.

A stern reminder letter arrived, drawing my attention to the fact that money could be involved, and still I dillied and dallied over the exercise.

In my case there was no rebellious decision to take a stand against what some might regard as yet another onerous and unreasonable diktat from a regime drunk on power – I’ve no objection to the exercise whatsoever, and fully accept it helps government frame policies in line with statistics which show developing trends within our communities.

But it is a palaver, one from which there is no legitimate hiding place.  If you were the Broons family away at the But n’ Ben during the census period you would still have to fill it in (the Scottish Government advice inferred).

If you were unable to complete it for that or similar reasons then you would have to make a tedious phone call to some desk jockey and tell him or her the circs.  They are determined to have that information.

In a surprise development a polite young man appeared at my door one day and, in the most deferential and sympathetic, even eloquent, manner possible, implored me to get my finger out and file the answers to the Holyrood Inquisition toute de suite.

He did not threaten, nag, hector or intimidate, and was the perfect ambassador for Progressive Scotland, and I felt a little ashamed I hadn’t completed the thing already.

Having resolved to do it that evening I arrived home from the shops to find a final, poignant reminder jammed in the letter box – and almost felt flattered that anyone should require so much boring detail from my humble household.

So I completed it, and it didn’t take that long, and I’m guessing thousands of other people also managed to beat the deadline, just, as the inevitability of it all finally began to sink in.

But many others did not, and so have been given another four weeks to get their forms completed and filed.

Meanwhile I later read a couple of online articles which made me wish I’d done the deed from the outset.

I’ve only myself to blame, but I clicked on a couple of articles from the High English press which gloated and jeered at the fact that so many Scots were apparently indifferent or even hostile to the concept.

It was implied the Scottish Government had spent a fortune on a pointless exercise (it being pointless if insufficient data were to be collected by close of play).

The National Census is an exercise which should rightly and properly be conducted only by the UK Government, one sneered, since that august body – when not embroiled in parties, allegations of scandalous behaviour in the House, plans to fly desperate refugees to Rwanda and whatnot – was in charge of everything of any importance in the entire country.

One especially snooty article declared the entire devolution project to have been a disaster, and – presumably completely straight-faced – blathered on about the rebellious iniquities of the tartan rebels in Edinburgh and their expensive uselessness.

I know any question or even mention of Trans issues provokes a torrent of bile and spume, and prefer to avoid that particular minefield – and don’t know if a UK census would give the subject the same sort of prominence – but on the other questions I’d be surprised if (for example) anyone at British Government level would have even heard of traditional Scots as being a bona fide language, or care.

Anyway … in his rather more measured article Severin Carrell, Scottish editor of the Guardian, charted the record low response in Scotland and detailed the complaints of Scots Tories about the way things had been handled.

He wrote: “Glasgow, a city that has Scotland’s highest rate of digital exclusion, had a response rate of 65% and Inverclyde, which also has high poverty rates, was 70%. Wealthier areas such as Aberdeenshire and East Renfrewshire were above 80%.”

By contrast England’s census had a 97% return rate last year, he said, although the deadline was pushed back for some institution settings.

Office for National Statistics data showed England’s highest rates of return for digital forms were from its poorest and most ethnically diverse council areas – Tower Hamlets and Newham in London both had a 97% online reply rate.

Wow, one might conclude, does that mean there are actually different regional trends on either side of the border?   Who knew?  Shockarooni.

Could it be that what some argue is a cost of living crisis the UK Government has signally failed to address, the catastrophe of Universal Credit and much else besides have taken precedence in many Scottish minds over a dull-as-ditchwater form which, however necessary and important, doesn’t currently sit terribly high in the must-do agenda of your typical Scot?  Or are we just bone idle – or thrawn?

Will that missing quarter of all Scots households finally succumb to all those mailshots and personal visits and meet the new deadline – and will there be banner headlines in anything read by more than a miniscule percentage of the Scottish population if they don’t?

Fill the bloody thing in, folks. Fire and forget.  Prove that when it comes to box ticking we can soar to Olympic gold standard if we feel like it. 

As in the production of Scotch Whisky, we just like to take our time.

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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