Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 January 2009

Lies, damn lies and censuses: nationality, national identity and ethnicity in the proposed 2011 UK censuses

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And the 2011 census belongs, clearly, in the latter category. Or the 2011 censuses, rather; because, in the wake of devolution, there are now three censuses for the UK – or four, if you include the superficial differences, mostly relating to the sequence of the questions, between the forms that will be sent out to households in England and Wales.

The questions about ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ in the proposed forms for England & Wales and Scotland respectively neatly illustrate how the way you gather statistics can pre-determine the answer you want, in the service of a political agenda; whether that agenda is to reinforce the cohesiveness of a British ‘national identity’ or to insidiously drive a wedge between the different national identities of the UK by defining them in ethnic terms.

First, the form for England and Wales. As reported by Toque, the 2011 census will ask people the following question about their ‘national identity’:

So far so good: very good, in fact. In contrast to the 2001 census, there are at least separate ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ tick boxes; and they’re not indented underneath the ‘British’ category (making ‘British’ the implied primary national identity for all UK citizens), as they were in an earlier proposal for the ethnic categories in the census (see my previous discussion). And you can also pick more than one of these national identities, if you so wish; e.g. English and British, Scottish and British, etc. However, Cornish nationalists will understandably decry the absence of a ‘Cornish’ check box. And there’s also still a big problem with this ‘national identity’ list when set against the ‘ethnic group’ question:

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that people aren’t asked to differentiate in ethnic terms between Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness and Britishness: there’s a single ‘white’ category for all white persons who have selected one or more of these terms as their national identity (-ies). However, this implicitly sets up a ‘white-British’ ethnic group (like the one used in the 2001 census), as all of these five ‘national identities’ are basically those of Britain / the UK. This white-British ethnicity is differentiated in the ethnic-group question from ‘white Irish’; in contrast to the 2001 form, which defined a single ‘white Irish’ ethnicity that could include people with political loyalties or affiliations to either Northern Ireland or the Republic. In other words, the form is making an ethnic distinction purely on the basis of a political division: between Britain / the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland.

This definition of ethnic categories along the lines of state frontiers is completely inappropriate and unacceptable, politically and methodologically. In actual fact, this introduces into the census a third, unspoken type of ethnic / national categorisation – nationality – that is subtly different from ‘national identity’ but will inevitably skew the way respondents describe their national identity. White-British people are being forced by the form to define their ethnicity in relation to this third type of identity (nationality), i.e. their status as British citizens. If the form succeeds in getting English people to accept a definition of their ethnicity that is based on their nationality (i.e. ‘white-British’), then those same people are far more likely to tick the ‘British’ check box in the question on ‘national identity’ (No. 15 above), whether in addition to or instead of ‘English’.

In this way, the census manipulates the power of ethnic identity to reinforce a political identity: Britishness. In relation to all the ‘non-white-British’ ethnic categories, it also effectively biases people in favour of choosing ‘British’ as their ‘national identity’ by again using the political category ‘British’ as an ethnic identifier (e.g. in the top-level categories ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’). If, on the other hand, the terms ‘Asian English’ and ‘Black English’ were used alongside ‘Asian British’ and ‘Black British’, respondents selecting those ethnic groups would be far more likely to select ‘English’ as their national identities in addition to or instead of British. But if their very ethnicity is defined in relation to Britishness, this subliminally induces them to also pick an exclusively British national identity.

In the proposed Scottish census, by contrast, ethnically Asian and Black persons are allowed to view themselves ethnically as Scottish; i.e. the terms corresponding to the ethnic-group categories C and D in the England & Wales form shown above are ‘Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British’ and ‘African, Caribbean or Black’ – a heading that includes the sub-categories ‘African Scottish’, ‘Caribbean Scottish’ and ‘Black Scottish’ alongside ‘African British’, ‘Caribbean British’ and ‘Black British’. This is of course designed to produce the same effect as would the inclusion of the categories of ‘Asian English’ and ‘African English’ in the English census (or ‘Asian Welsh’ and ‘African Welsh’ in Wales): it encourages people of those ethnicities to indicate ‘Scottish’ as one of their ‘national identities’ or even their only one, especially as the ‘ethnic’ designator ‘Scottish’ precedes that of ‘British’ in each of these ethnic-group categories.

To this extent, the Scottish form works in a similar way to the English & Welsh one, although to politically diametrically opposed ends: it encourages people to identify ethnically as Scottish so that they will also select ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and perhaps their exclusive one. However, the Scottish census exploits ethnic identification in an even more pernicious way still. In contrast to the England & Wales form, the Scottish questionnaire explicitly separates out the terms ‘Scottish’, ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and ‘British’ as distinct ethnic categories, albeit only when identified with the white ethnic group, as illustrated below:

There are many things that could be said about these categories; but the most important point is the utterly insidious way that these ethnic categories are intended to influence the way people will fill in the checkboxes relating to ‘national identity’ (see below). If respondents are forced to define themselves ethnically as either Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish or British (when these are political and cultural identities, not ethnic), then this will inevitably induce more of those that choose ‘Scottish’ to select only ‘Scottish’ as their national identity, and not Scottish and British. Here is the bit of the form relating to national identity:

Note the quite astonishing omission of ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ and even ‘Irish’ as options for national identity, whereas these terms are options for ethnicity, a discrepancy that was reported on with some bemusement in Wednesday’s Wales Online. This seems to me to be a complete reversal of the correct way of looking at things: Welsh and (Northern) Irish, and Scottish and English for that matter, are properly to be seen as national and cultural identities, not ethnic ones.

What on earth is going on here? My interpretation is that the form is trying to foster an ‘ethnic-Scottish’ identity as the ‘primary’ national identity of Scottish people: one that takes precedence, precisely, over their British nationality. As people work their way through the form, they may well tick both ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ in question No. 14 above on national identity. Then, when they come to question 15 on ethnic group, they are forced to choose between Scottishness and Britishness, purely on supposedly ethnic grounds. Scottish people going through this process will then think to themselves: ‘well, am I more Scottish or more British in terms of my genealogy and family affiliations’, which is how people think of their ethnicity. And, of course, they’re much more likely to answer ‘Scottish’ if they’ve got Scottish family roots and have lived in Scotland all their lives; whereas ‘British’ is a merely political affiliation: nationality as opposed to this faux ethnicity. So, once they’ve decided to describe themselves officially as of Scottish ethnicity, then they are a) much more likely to go back and cross out ‘British’ as one of their national identities (or not select it at all if they fill in question 15 before question 14); and b) more importantly, they may henceforth come to see their national identity as Scottish in the first instance, as the form invites them to see this concept in relation to a spurious Scottish ethnicity rather than their British nationality.

So whereas the England & Wales form defines ethnicity along the lines of nationality to reinforce an acceptance of a British national identity on the part of English people, the Scottish form defines national identity along the lines of a concocted Scottish ethnicity in order to undermine Scottish people’s identification with their British nationality.

It’s hard to say which is worse. If anything, I think it’s the Scottish one, which uses a totally unjustifiable division of the UK along dubious ethnic lines in the service of a nationalist agenda. This is the kind of ethnic nationalism that undermines the cause of civic and multi-ethnic nationalism. But both approaches will inevitably generate misleading results designed to support the national-identity politics of the UK and Scottish governments respectively.

As I said: there are lies, damn Scottish lies and UK censuses.

Create a free website or blog at