THERE’S an unspoken belief among many Scots that when it comes to obeying rules, we’re better at it than most. Take lockdown: while Westminster was partying as if it was Ibiza, Holyrood was as sober as Stornoway on the sabbath. No playground swings were chained up for fear anyone felt the urge to enjoy themselves, but the mood hovering over Parliament was repressive, and we, the people, did as we were told.

Not surprisingly, then, when the 2022 Census dropped through letterboxes it was assumed that, as in previous decades, the vast majority of us would do our civic duty. Lest anyone felt tempted to ignore this legal obligation we were reminded that a £1000 fine could be imposed for non-compliance. Even so, such information felt more like an exercise in bureaucratic small print than an anticipation of financial knuckle raps.

How unexpected, then, that on the expiry of the census deadline on May 1, roughly a quarter of households had yet to reply. This, despite individuals being directly contacted – doorstepped as journalists would put it – to urge them to get on with it or to offer support in filling it in.

Compared with the rest of the UK’s 97% census return rate last year, our lacklustre performance has come as a shock. Now the deadline is to be extended by a further month – at a cost of £10m – so that an already expensive venture (£138m) is not an all-out failure.

According to historian Tom Devine, however, research undertaken in the US suggests that giving people longer to respond won’t greatly alter the outcome. “Such is the scale of the disaster,” he says, “the authorities have had little choice but to offer a new deadline. Will the extension work? It is very doubtful.”

Seen in this light, it appears that 575,000 households agree with Douglas Adams. “I love deadlines,” he used to say. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

A rather underwhelming television advert signalled the census’s arrival. It was designed to show that the information gleaned is essential for determining what public services the population requires, and assess what areas of provision the government should target, and where. Whether it’s the demand for hospitals, schools, libraries or care homes (to mention but a few), the 10-yearly census is the state strategists’ bible, the manual they must consult before taking any key decisions. It is also a goldmine for future historians.

Heads are doubtless being scratched at the National Records of Scotland as they try to explain the dragging of feet. Was the decision not to run the survey in 2021 at the height of Covid ultimately self-defeating? Would people have been more enthusiastic while they had time on their hands, and were so accustomed to following orders they didn’t pause to reflect or object?

Who knows. If the threat of a criminal prosecution is not enough to persuade the disaffected to complete a simple questionnaire, however, it suggests the root cause is more significant, and revealing, than mere laziness.

As Devine pointed out, the response rate in digitally deprived areas of England in 2021 was far higher than in Glasgow, where a third of households have failed to submit their returns. Part of the explanation might, of course, be lack of literacy or digital competency. Even so, neither of those factors has dented the England’s impressive response.

The reasons behind Scotland’s apathy can at this point only be a matter of speculation. Was the census not well-enough publicised? Have people merely forgotten, or has it proved too complicated? It’s likely some of the no-shows fall into those camps, but the unprecedented number of non-responders suggests a more entrenched attitude at play. Are we witnessing a silent protest: what you might call an unofficial and uncoordinated civilian stand-off or strike? And if so, why?

It wouldn’t surprise me if the answer is very simple: people are fed up with being nagged. These past two years we have lived as if in a nation-wide compound, taking instruction on almost every aspect of our lives. We have been spared public tannoys and loud speakers, but have nevertheless been bombarded endlessly by radio, screen and social media, telling us what we can and cannot do. For the most part we have been impressively biddable. We have worn masks, stayed indoors, kept apart, remained in our postcode, and obeyed restrictions on our liberties and natural instincts that for some will be a source of anguish for the rest of their days.

But it’s not just with Covid that we’ve been issued with new rules. Earlier this year we were burdened with a legal requirement to install interlinked smoke detectors. Since this edict arrived at a time when budgets were already threadbare, and with worse expected to come, I’m guessing thousands have pushed this demand to the back of their minds. So too the need to be dramatically more environmentally friendly, which often doesn’t come cheap.

Added to which is the ceaseless barrage of public health information, so that it can feel as if we are back in the classroom being coached for an exam. We are lectured on what we should eat, and what to avoid; how much we can drink, and the consequences if we over-do it. Then there’s the issue of exercise: what form it should take, how often, and what to expect if we don’t.

None of this tsunami of advice is altruistic. A nanny state never is. Unlike the census, whose purpose is to shape the country to everyone’s advantage, health advice is about protecting the NHS and putting the least possible strain on the public purse. Obviously the fitter you are the happier, within reason, which is to the benefit of all. But a government’s idea of well-being isn’t a population brimming with contentment and joy. Its highest goal is a nation that rarely crosses a GP’s doorstep, let alone fills a hospital bed.

Rather than threatening to issue fines to census non-responders, perhaps it’s time our leaders adopted a lighter touch. Right now, with the war in Europe at the forefront of everybody’s minds, there’s only so much badgering people can take. With soaring anxiety about rising domestic bills while we’re still reeling from the impact of Covid, filling the census comes very low on the list of priorities.

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