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Sketch: Making sense of the census

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Making sense of the census

It is easy to forget just how young the Scottish Government is. Easy to forget, until it does something stupid to try to step out from its parents’ shadow – in this case, the UK Government.

I DON’T LIKE WHAT YOU LIKE, screamed Angus Robertson, I’M MY OWN INDIVIDUAL PERSON, before storming up the stairs, slamming the door and jacking up the Linkin Park to volume 10. That particular tantrum was over the UK’s 2021 census, which in Scotland became the 2022 census for… reasons.

And so, when the whole thing had predictably not gone at all well, Robertson – who had been keeping a low profile, if only to avoid questions from his own team about when indyref2 would be – was made to come to parliament to apologise for the folly.

But, stubborn as any teenager, Robertson would not say sorry. A response rate of 88 per cent was a “good level of national census returns,” he told colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, as he guiltily shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We did not reach the 94 per cent target that the National Records of Scotland wished us to reach,” he admitted. “We have got to within six points of the target,” he offered instead. And as we can all agree, six is a very small number. A trifling amount, really. Except for when that six actually represents, oh, about 158,000 households.

Robertson’s Conservative counterpart, Donald Cameron, attempted the first remonstration. “Scotland’s census lies in ruins. It is a disgrace. The SNP could have run the census in sync with the rest of the UK last year, but as always, they had to be different.” Conform, young Robertson, that’s all you had to do.

Never one to give up, the man responsible for ensuring the census ran smoothly said it hadn’t gone smoothly because of someone else. The dog ate his homework. “While many reasons were offered by householders, by far the most common, at 35 per cent, was they were too busy,” Robertson said. His parrot got sick. “It was the decision of people, for a variety of different reasons, not to return their census responses.” His alarm didn’t go off.

Labour’s Martin Whitfield was not convinced. Resplendent in a yellow and blue dickie bow tie – making him look like a substitute maths teacher – he questioned the young Robertson on the numbers. Over 30 per cent of people didn’t respond to the census because they didn’t know about it or didn’t realise they had to respond, he said. Who is responsible for that?

A great question, replied Robertson, realising the blame game was not getting him very far. “This goes to the heart of trying to understand why it is that there has been a particular group of particularly hard to reach households and individuals.” Well, yes. That’s why he’s asking you, the man who literally has responsibility for this.

“What is it – I mean, I am asking myself this question – what is it that in a household when one has received a multitude of correspondence in a variety of formats,” here he picked up an example stack as a prop, perhaps hoping to distract some MSPs by waving it around (which to be fair probably worked for some of his backbenchers), “that one’s house has been visited not once, but in many cases twice, three times, four times, five times, that still a significant percentage of people were saying ‘I didn’t know it was happening’ and so on and so on. This, to my mind, is absolutely the lesson that needs to be learned.”

Well done, Robertson, you’ve correctly identified the question. Now, what is the answer? Blank stares.

Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie tried next, suggesting the minister should not be “making a virtue” of that fact that the census only cost slightly more than planned. Robertson tried his small number trick again. “It took 4.3 per cent of additional cost,” he says. 4.3 – a very small number, smaller even than six! Except in this case, 4.3 was… £6 million.

Parliament was still no closer to getting any real answers, and so Robertson was sent to Headmaster Stephen Kerr. He was not angry, just disappointed. “I fear that Angus Robertson is doing something today that I would not normally associate with him, in that in his statement today he’s insulting the intelligence of many of us here and the people of Scotland.”

And, like any naughty schoolboy caught out by his teacher, Robertson continued to insist that black was white. “Do I believe that the census was adequately communicated in Scotland? Yes, I do.” Kerr sat back, exasperated, and crossed his arms, steely eyes focused on the young man before him. People were sent reminders, Robertson insisted, loads of them, for ages. Kerr shook his head, opened his mouth to interrupt.

“Personal responsibility!” yelled Robertson in desperation. The reason the census has been a disaster is because of that, he insisted. Well, well, well. Who’d have thunk it. In a bind, the under-pressure youth began to parrot his elders. There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, after all.

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