The UK Census was released today, and the Guardian is “live-blogging” the details[1]. As a statistician I feel obliged to comment on the census, because it’s a fundamentally important part of modern cultural life. As an opinionated bastard, I also take great joy in the release of figures I can distort to suit my view – just like the commenters at the Guardian – so let’s dig in and see what we can say about the UK Census.

Why is it important?

I’m pretty sure someone with more energy than me can trace all of modern statistics back to an Islamic scholar, or worse still, a Frenchie, but as far as most people care modern statistics – and, especially, modern demography – owes a huge debt to the British. The census began in 1801 but Britain has been keeping some kind of records since before they invented the clock, so their contribution to the body of human knowledge is worthy of respect. Furthermore, London has been a very international city for a long time, and the rest of Britain an inward-looking maelstrom of anti-foreigner weirdness, and because British government has generally failed to implement anything resembling a sensible multicultural policy, what happens in London and the way British people regard what happens in London is very interesting to those of us who are a little more sanguine about racial issues.

Foreigners and the tabloid press

The Guardian reports in its headline that now almost 1 in 8 people in Britain was born abroad, and “white British” ethnicity is a minority in London (at 46%). This is the Guardian, that doyen of leftist politics. Check out the comments to that article: almost everyone is commenting on or arguing about the issue of foreigners in London, and aside from one faux-cynical comment about the rich getting richer, no one is noticing the strange economic phenomenon of the decline in home ownership, and if anyone notices the radical changes in religious composition it’s to worry about a tiny minority of Muslims, not to notice the explosion in atheism. This is the prestige that the British ruling class use to pull off their magic trick of robbing the poor: they get everyone looking at the weirdo foreigners while they steal their stuff. Of course it’s all irrelevant: 24% of the Australian population was born overseas, and no one gives a toss. Our Prime Minister was born overseas (in Wales, no less! can you imagine?!) But in Britain having half that many people born overseas is the main point, all else secondary. And as we can see, what is secondary is perhaps much more important than the number of foreigners in the country.

Race vs. origin: a strange British obsession

The debate in Britain about race is a strangely obsessive thing. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) offers a set of something like 15 ethnicities for respondents to choose from, including the ludicrous category of “White British,” which must really mystify any Americans staying in the UK during the census period. What can they class themselves as? Of course there are other equally ludicrous ethnicities, such as “Black African,” which put Ethiopians, Zulus and Nigerian Yoruba in the same ethnicity. What is the point of this? Who does it help? From an epidemiological point of view it’s a complete waste of time. Genetically it’s meaningless – everyone in Iceland, whose DNA has been mapped, gets classed in the same category (“White Other”) as everyone from Hungary. Where do Australians get placed? (There is not – yet – a category for “Mostly White Mongrel”).  This categorization says so much more about the ruling majority’s petty obsessions than it does about the population of Britain, and is a classic example of a classification system that obscures anything meaningful, while revealing a set of pre-conceived preferences that serve only to reinforce a certain worldview.

But this census the ONS did a remarkable thing: for the first time in the 200 years of the census they bothered to ask respondents what language they speak at home, and so we get to learn something of the actual ethnic make-up of the nation, rather than the ethnic composition imagined by those who think the elision of Hungarians and Icelanders is useful. We learn that 91% of British people speak only English at home, and 4% can speak no English at all. Compare this with ethnically “homogeneous” Japan, where about 2% of the population are non-Japanese: so probably about 1% speak no Japanese. Is it really such a big difference?

In Australia we don’t ask about “ethnicity.” [From memory] We ask three questions: where you were born, what languages do you speak at home, and are you Aboriginal? The latter is asked because of the continuing challenges facing Aboriginal people (especially discrimination) and the importance of cataloguing and understanding their culture; the former two questions were a deliberate decision of the Hawke government to make census data representative of modern Australia. In modern Australia, if you are born in Australia you are Australian, and the assumption should be (and generally, is) that your ethnicity is irrelevant. This means that if someone came here from the UK we don’t care if they are black, white or “Asian”: we only care about the fact that they are new to Australia and the languages they speak. From a data-driven point of view, ethnicity is a highly charged and complex notion, debated and disputed at every level – from the genetic and the political to the personal. My father, for example, believes that he is “White English” and he and his friends – all of whom, incidentally, believe I am not “white English” because my Grandfather is Spanish – refuse to write “White British” on the census, and deliberately select “other” so they can write “White English.” The ONS doesn’t report this little protest movement, as far as I’m aware, though I don’t know why: “White English” is as meaningless a category as “black African,” so why not include it? The truth of my father’s situation is much more deeply embedded in other census data – born in Britain, speaks only English, lives in a trailer park – than in the supposed purity of his genetic heritage. Who cares what percentage of his heritage is saxon vs. French? But my father does, because while he is very easily tempted to represent himself in terms of lost and mythical racial categories, it is extremely hard to get him to think of himself in terms of functionally useful social phenomena, such as home ownership or social class. And this is the great trick of the British race “debate”: it gets all those little Englanders to identify with their white overlords, rather than with the gypsy down the road who is in the same economic position as them.


In the religion category we find that the UK has finally caught up with Australia – and at a rapid pace – with 25% of respondents endorsing “no religion” compared to 15% in 2001. This is a rapid change, and indicates that support for mainstream religion in the UK is declining rapidly, with the main increase being amongst those who reject all religion. The other main article on the Guardian site as I write this is the government’s announcement that religious groups will be given the right to “opt in” to gay marriage laws – that is, they will be automatically assumed to be discriminatory bigots unless they raise a finger to indicate otherwise. Can we think of any reason why the proportion of people who are non-religious might be increasing rapidly in the UK?

Sadly, the number of Jedi has declined by half since the last census, from 390,000 in 2001 to 176,000 now. At least the ONS was brave enough to report this cute little protest movement – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) refused to release the figures.

Home ownership

The other remarkable finding in this survey is that home ownership rates have declined, from 69% to 64%, even though the population is ageing and so should be expected to have higher rates of home ownership. How is it that the UK has gone through a 10 year long housing boom (that ended just 2 years before the census was taken) yet the number of people renting has increased by almost the same amount that the number of owners has declined? It can’t be because of a general all-round decline in wealth – the number of cars in ownership has increased by about 9%, even though there was no car ownership bubble. So what happened? This should serve as a reminder to everyone that privately-financed housing bubbles are the antithesis of the housing dream: they concentrate the market in the hands of those who own capital, giving them rentier’s power over an essential service. Of course, over the coming days all debate will be focused on race and immigration. How convenient for the rentiers…

The myth of British education and Australian ignorance

The proportion of people in the population with a degree education of any kind increased to 27%, finally breaking even with Australia. Of course, the population has increased by 5% since 2001 – while the British newspapers would love to blame every decline in living standards on foreigners, I’m willing to bet you a groat that they don’t point to temporary foreign migrant workers – mainly skilled labourers, I suspect – who might have bolstered those figures. Already the comments in the Guardian are complaining about “white British” who can’t get a job or a house, so I guess they won’t be rushing to praise the the high levels of education of foreigners in the UK. It’s another example of the sad decline of the UK relative to the rest of the world that with a 4% increase in education level they can finally cut even with the colony they shipped their criminals too. From a great colonial power to a nation that sits hunched over its census reports, bemoaning the shrinking number of “white British” people, and wondering why …

Still, at least the Church of England will be protected from having to offer equality to gays…

fn1: noone who “live blogs” in the Guardian ever turns up in comments to defend their crappy opinions[2], so it’s not actually a blog at all. They should instead say “we are using an annoying and inconvenient format to report important news as it comes in, so that we can attempt to trump the Daily Mail even though they’re much better at getting scoops than us, and don’t belittle themselves by pretending that they care about new media while patently failing to understand it.”

fn2: actually a couple of the anti-sex work campaigners do pop up in comments, but this is because they have blogs of their own and take new media seriously. Monbiot – who for all his chardonnay sipping faults is one of the best and most honest opinion writers in Britain – also engages with his commenters[3]. The rest of them act like what they are: idiot journalists who’ve been forced to produce their second rate thinking in a stream-of-consciousness format, which is really embarrassing for the average journalist[5], especially since the people who are best at this kind of thing are usually sports journalists.

fn3: and links to fully-referenced versions of his posts, which is genuinely excellent[4]

fn4: and you can get stuffed if you expect that kind of devotion around here!

fn5: remember, these were the thickest people at uni![6]

fn6: or second thickest, depending on where you place statisticians in the heirarchy.