Speech at Wolverhampton

19th April, 1968

The mania of the questionnaire bids fair to be one of the curses of our age. The amount of time which people who have something better to do spend in completing perfectly futile forms and answering utterly fatuous questions would, if put to better use, represent a considerable addition to our national income.

There are signs of this mania spreading to the General Register Office, which conducts the national census. I don’t know whether any of you was fortunate enough to be selected as a recipient of a recent communication from the Registrar General, enclosing a questionnaire which I hold in my hand. If you were, and have not yet completed it, you will have received a further request, dated January this year, telling you that ‘the response has been excellent’, and that ‘most of the people approached have sent in their completed forms’. Assuming that this information makes you thoroughly ashamed of your failure so far to co-operate, you will I hope address yourself to filling in the questionnaire.

It starts off swimmingly: ‘Have you ever had an operation for gallstones?’ to which most people should have little difficulty in returning a straight affirmative or negative. Things soon began to thicken however. You have to write down ‘how many cups of tea, coffee and other hot beverages (cocoa, chocolate, ‘Ovaltine’ – is that advertising? – etc.) you consume before breakfast, at breakfast, morning break, midday meal, tea-time, evening meal, bedtime and other’. I like ‘other’: presumably that is for the people who brew up at two in the morning. But that’s just for a start. On the next page we get down to business. ‘How many teaspoons of sugar do you take’ in each beverage, and ‘are the spoons level or heaped?’ (One can’t be too careful what one does in a modern state!) Then comes a bit of personal history: ‘have you always taken the same amount of sugar in these beverages?’

We then turn to solids. On an ‘average day’ how many slices of bread do you eat? And don’t just imagine you can slap down any old figure. You have to pick your way through ‘average slice’, ‘extra thick’ and ‘extra thin’ cut off ‘large loaves’ and ‘small loaves’; so it’s lucky for you if you only eat ‘rolls’.

The candidate is now in a position to approach the more advanced part of the paper. For instance: ‘how many fizzy drinks, non-alcoholic’ by the glass do you drink per week, or, if you take sugar on your breakfast cereals, are the spoons you use tea spoons or dessert spoons and are the spoonfuls level or heaped? Don’t fill that in if you are like me, and prefer porridge; for there is a separate entry on its own for those who take porridge.

Now I am sure you will be glad to know that the cost of this lark is being met out of the research funds of Queen Elizabeth College, and that you have been participating in a diet and health survey for the benefit of Professor John Yudkin, of that College.

But you may not be so pleased if you get another form, dated March of this year, also from the census office, which asks (hold it!) for details of your earnings in the financial year April 1966–March 1967. All quite confidential, of course; guaranteed no leaks even to ‘other government departments’ (guess which!); and you really ought to feel flattered, because this is a survey for the Department of Education and Science ‘on the earnings of people with particular academic, professional, or vocational qualifications’. The questions include, for instance, whether one had ‘subsidized or free housing or car for own use provided by the employer’, and ‘what was the total net profit before tax but after deducting expenses, from self-employment in the financial year 1966/67’.

Now, I have it on the authority of the Registrar General that ‘surveys of this type are a relatively new development of our census work’. ‘Each one’, he says, ‘has so far been judged on its merits.’ This is just as well; for if these are a good example of the ‘merit’, then this promising new growth of volunteer bureaucracy had better be stamped on here and now. A glimpse of what will otherwise be in store for us is afforded by the complaisant self-satisfaction of the authors. ‘We feel’, says the Registrar General, ‘that to use the census as a sample frame for this kind of enquiry is a valuable development and a step forward in making the fullest use of the material we have. The approach to the public has to be made by us because we cannot give anyone outside the census organization a list of names and addresses.’

Sometimes it is a minor detail which casts a flood of light upon the malaise of a whole society. This incipient perversion of the census machinery derives from the very same general assumption which is pervading and strangling our life and our economy, namely, the conviction that the citizen is perfectly incapable of conducting his own affairs unless he is managed and controlled, planned and organized, with material distilled by experts from elaborate surveys which bureaucrats have conducted into his benighted behaviour. The National Economic Plan of the DEA – we are threatened with another, you know – and the Diet and Health Survey of the General Register Office, they are all branches, some tiny, some large, of this same pervasive, poisonous upas tree of contempt for the independence, dignity and competence of the individual.