Much has been written about the results of the religion question in the 2001 census of population of Great Britain, but rather less is known about how that question came to be asked in the first place. This followed a four-year campaign (1996-2000) by a consortium of faith communities to get it included on the census schedule in the face of a Government which deemed it a low priority and baulked at the prospect of having to change primary legislation in order to be able to ask about religious affiliation.
It is, therefore, good to see a new ‘micro-history’ of the campaign from the perspective of one of its participants, Jamil Sherif, who was one of the Muslim representatives on the Religious Affiliation Sub-Group and the successor 2001 Census Religious Affiliation Group, speaking on behalf of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs and, after its formation in 1997, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), whose Research and Documentation Committee Dr Sherif chaired.
Dr Sherif’s account and reminiscences appear in ‘A Census Chronicle: Reflections on the Campaign for a Religion Question in the 2001 Census for England and Wales’, Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 32, 2011, pp. 1-18. In this article he draws upon both published and unpublished sources, including the MCB’s own archives and contemporary documents obtained from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) under the Freedom of Information Act.
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The Religious Affiliation Sub-Group and 2001 Census Religious Affiliation Group were chaired by Professor Leslie Francis, now of the University of Warwick, who has published his own recollections of the campaign in ‘Religion and Social Capital: The Flaw in the 2001 Census in England and Wales’, Public Faith? The State of Religious Belief and Practice in Britain, ed. Paul Avis, London: SPCK, 2003, pp. 45-64.
One of the main players for ONS was John Dixie, Census Coverage Survey Manager. As a civil servant, there is naturally little from him on the public record about the religion question, the main exception being his ‘The Ethnic and Religious Questions for 2001: Research and Responses’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 32, 1998, pp. 5-14.
Although the 2001 census was the first to include a question on religious affiliation in mainland Britain (the question was asked in Ireland from 1861), it was not the first occasion an attempt had been made to pose it. Indeed, in connection with every census bill from 1860 to the eve of the First World War there was a debate in Parliament about the desirability of asking about religious affiliation.
These debates got caught up in acrimonious disputes between the Church of England and the Nonconformists, particularly efforts by elements of the latter to disestablish the former. Anglicans wanted a census of religious profession, primarily because it had the potential to put them in the best statistical light. Nonconformists resisted this and urged a census of church attendance, as in 1851, thinking it would give them greater quantitative profile. Most Governments just wanted to steer clear of controversy by avoiding a question on religion in any form.
One of the fiercest disputes over the projected religious affiliation question came in 1910, when there was almost a major constitutional crisis between the House of Commons and House of Lords over the issue, which had come to the fore because of the campaign, then at its height, for disestablishment of the Church in Wales. The Lords twice passed an amendment to include the question in the census and only backed down at the eleventh hour.