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The Personal Column

Counting the Cost

Jeff Cloves ponders the arms trade, the census, and the perils of not being on the electoral register

Small events in small towns happen everywhere in UK plc but they’re worth recounting nonetheless. At times it’s easy to believe that nobody cares about anything and nothing can be done anyway. Usually the arrival of PN is a corrective to such negative thinking on my part but occasionally there also occur what Tory prime minister Harold (Supermac) Macmillan once described as “events, dear boy, events”, and the world takes on a slightly rosier hue.

Events here in the People’s Republic of Stroud concern the fall-out from the Great Census Fiasco and the consequent court appearances of two local thorns-in-the-flesh of the British military-industrial complex. Green mayor John Marjoram and the unrepentant revolting peasant, Roger Franklin, have been picked out of the protesting hat and charged with failure to fill in their census forms. Life has not taken on a rosier hue for them, but “so what?” PN’s serial protestors may well ask. Well here’s what.

I heard on BBC Radio 4 recently – so it must be true – that two million cits failed to return or fill in their census forms. According to the Beeb, one million of those may be accounted for by people moving house or disappearing from view for various reasons, but the other million appear to be conscious flouters of authority who do not believe in the need for a census – are we not supervised, questioned and processed at every turn of our lives anyway? – or in its stated benign intentions.

Perhaps more significantly, I learned that so far only 400 of these refuseniks have been charged. Since the delivery of census forms is accompanied by dire threats of heavy fines should the authority of The State be opposed, it is heartening that so many have said – with varying degrees of politeness – “Up yours, Big Brother!”

Now, how these 400 martyrs were chosen, and why, is unclear but as Bob Dylan sang years ago, “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, and, of course, the selection of John and Roger for prosecution – persecution more like – is not random and not disinterested. On that same Radio 4 broadcast about the census, I heard an interview with a youngish-sounding refusenik who was also being metaphorically dragged to court. He was fluent and persuasive in his own defence but was perfectly prepared to cough-up his thousand quid fine if the court so determined.

What interested him was: “Why am I one of the 400?” Answer came there none but I might guess that he too is regarded as one of the usual suspects.

Refusing to be on the electoral register also gets up the sniffy nose of authority as I have found to my own minor cost. Once at the Halifax building society (when it was still a mutual), the local branch manager – watching me pay in a small amount – suddenly advised that my life savings were in the wrong account. He filled in a transfer form on my behalf and that was the last I heard of the matter. Intrigued, I pursued this stony silence until I eventually discovered that I’d been turned down because I wasn’t on the electoral roll.

Years ago, the Labour government – under Harold Wilson I think – set up a citizen’s bank (I forget its official title) to be administered by the Post Office. I decided to leave the Co-op bank and filled out the necessary form. Again, a stony silence and a refusal to reply to my letters. Eventually I discovered my application had again been rejected because I wasn’t on the electoral roll. Consequences, dear boy, consequences.

Here’s a last swipe at the census before I shut up. If I thought about it at all, I imagined that a branch of the civil service carried out the census. Not so. To use the hateful jargon of our times it’s been “outsourced” to a branch of Lockheed Martin. Just in case you’re interested – the same Lockheed Martin whose millions have been made by being part of the military-industrial complex. “War is the health of the state”, it’s been said and, never doubt it, the census is too.

Topics: Arms trade