In two weeks’ time, all UK citizens will be required in law to fill in the national Census. Except, as in so many of these matters, there isn’t a Census for the whole UK but separate Censuses for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not that you’d know this from the coverage in the England-based British media, though, which hasn’t drawn our attention to the fact that the Census, like so much of domestic policy, has been devolved.
In England and Wales, we’ll be expected to answer the following two questions on our national identity and ‘ethnic group':
The only difference between England and Wales will be the order in which the options ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ appear on the form, and the fact that a Welsh-language version is available in Wales.
In Scotland, the ethnic-group question runs as follows:
Spot the difference? In England and Wales, non-white ethnic groups, as such, are not offered the standard option of including ‘English’ as part of their ethnic group: they’re officially classified only as ‘Black British’, ‘Asian British’, etc., and not ‘Black English’ or ‘Asian English’. By contrast, black and Asian persons living in Scotland are permitted to identify as ‘Black Scottish’ and ‘Asian Scottish’.
Not only is the ethnicity of black and minority ethnic (BAME) persons in England and Wales not officially to be classified as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’, but those latter terms are reserved as ethnic categories exclusively for white persons. I.e., according to British officialdom, if you’re ethnically English, you’re white. If that sounds a bit like the BNP, that’s because this is a form of – indeed, a form for – racial apartheid.
Now, of course, people filling in the form can write in ‘English’ as their ethnic group. But how many black or Asian respondents are seriously going to write in ‘English’ in the space left blank for ‘any other Black / African / Caribbean background’ or ‘any other Asian background’? Even if people from those population groups think of their culture as English, they’re not going to write ‘English’ in here because ‘English’ isn’t exactly an Afro-Caribbean or Asian ‘background’ as such; plus most form fillers will think that their English identity is adequately implied by the term ‘British’ included in the ethnic-group headings, especially if they’ve specified ‘English’ as their national identity in the previous question.
So the Census is going to come up with millions of non-white people who supposedly identify ethnically as ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. But this is totally meaningless because they weren’t even given the option of viewing themselves as English.
Meanwhile, if you are, as I am, white and English, the Census form leaves you no choice other than to accept that your ‘ethnic group’ is ‘white-English’. This hyphenated, racialised cultural identity is implied by the very fact that ‘English’ is a sub-category of ‘White’ alone. But I consider myself to be part of an English ethnic group – where ‘ethnic group’ implies culture – not a white-English sub-section of English / British society. I.e. my English ethnicity – culture – has nothing to do with the colour of my skin, and I don’t see myself as part of a culture associated only with one racial group. So what should I put down on the form here, and what should I write in?
Apart from its highly suspect racial-political bias against seeing English, as opposed to British, culture and identity as something multi-racial and multi-cultural, the problem is that the Census completely muddles up a number of distinct categories or types of national / cultural / ethnic identity. I would say there are four main forms of ‘national’ identity:
- Citizenship / nationality (i.e. statehood): in this sense, I personally am British
- Social identity: I identify as English and am seen by everyone who meets me as English because I sound, look and behave in typically English ways, and because my relationships, economic activities and engagement in society as a public space are shaped by the structures and institutions of English society (e.g. the English class system, the English as opposed to British public sector, the opportunities and limitations of the economy of southern England, etc.). My national identity is, therefore, English because I’ve been thoroughly socialised as English, and my life is shaped by English social norms and institutions
- Cultural / ethnic-group identity: here again, I’m English, if ‘ethnic group’ refers primarily to culture. Culture is about how we express ourselves in terms of collective, national rituals, traditions, customs and ways of life, as well as through creativity and the arts. My culture is distinctly English, although I recognise there is a great deal of continuity and overlap between that Englishness and the other national cultures of the UK
- Race / kinship: so here, I’m white and arguably white-British in the sense that all the ancestors I know of came from different parts of the British Isles, including what is now the Republic of Ireland. So perhaps I should tick both the ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / N. Irish / British’ and the ‘Irish’ boxes? Except the form doesn’t allow you to do so, exercising its own special form of ethnic apartheid again, separating the ‘British’ from the ‘non-British’ white populations. Goodness, even if I could enumerate the full set of my ancestors’ countries of origin – which I can’t – I couldn’t possibly say with any degree of scientific certainty what precise mix of British racial-ethnic-genetic antecedents I embody. I’d just rather call myself ‘white’ and have an end of it; but the form wants me to see myself as white-something, and effectively as either white-British or white-Irish. And if you do write in ‘English’, they’ll have you down as some sort of racial extremist: insisting on specifying ‘English’ in particular, as opposed to lumping ‘English’ in with all the other British-racial categories.
What a load of absurd and politically manipulated nonsense this all is! I’d have nothing to do with it if the law didn’t insist I went along with it. The Census’s national-identity question arguably implies all four types of identity I’ve enumerated here, so I could reply alternately British, English, Irish and even Welsh (given my Welsh maternal family), and all four would be correct on one level but wouldn’t reflect how I really feel, which is English. And the ethnic-group question egregiously conflates cultural and racial identity, and disallows ‘English’ as a term that applies to all racial groups, which is in fact how I view the term.
So how am I actually going to answer? ‘English’, obviously, as far as national identity is concerned. Many of my fellow countrymen will also tick ‘British’, partly because the question also implies the other main type of national identity: citizenship. So again, the Census will generate some marvellous stats about how the majority of English people also or exclusively identify as British; but the data will be completely useless because the Census is so inexplicit about how these terms for national identity are to be understood.
And as for ‘ethnic group’, I’m just going to tick White and then write in ‘White’. If they want to know about race, then fine: I’m happy to be seen as white. But I won’t be pigeonholed as ‘white-English’, still less as someone who insists on a white-English racial identity. My ethnicity is English, not my white skin colour. (Well, OK, that’s English too, on one level: not a pretty sight on a foreign beach!)
Clearly, other English people will have their own individual take on these things, and will have their own strategies for filling in, deflecting and subverting these injurious and biased questions about national and ethnic identity. And so the whole exercise will produce meaningless information, because it just doesn’t reflect the way English people – both white and non-white – now see themselves in terms of nationhood and culture. In truth, it’s more of a desperate last-ditched effort on the part of the Anglo-British establishment to mirror back to themselves a population that still views itself as British.
But like all statistical surveys, you get back pretty much what you put in. A load of rubbish in this instance.