Last Sunday, all people and households in England, Wales and Northern Ireland took part in the national census, which takes place every ten years. Scotland has delayed it for a year to be different.
Censuses are of course an age-old practice: in place of Caesar who ordained that ‘all the world should be taxed’ by ‘decree’, we were sent leaflets from the Office for National Statistics, informing us that ‘the census questions will help organisations make decisions on planning and funding public services.’
I dutifully filled it in along with my housemates – addressing carefully such fascinating questions as what kind of boiler we have, whether I got school qualifications, and what precisely my occupation is. The census is regarded as so vital by the British state in determining all kinds of functions that refusal to complete it carries, incredibly, a fine of up to £1,000.
The last time a British census was due to take place in such a heat of national crisis was during the Second World War – when the census was hit with a double-whammy disaster. The 1931 census records were destroyed in a fire, in 1942, where they were stored in Middlesex. In 1941, the census simply did not take place. The 1951 census, which took place in April of that year, had to make up for 30 years of abeyance in record-keeping. It was the first census in which household amenities were included in the questions.
And yet, one Englishman decided to respond to the census summons in the most curious and unconventional manner – he wrote 27 words across the front of the census paper: ‘In view of the critical state of the national economy, I must refuse to take part in this unnecessary waste of manpower, money, paper and print.’ That Englishman was my great-great grandfather, Sir Ernest Benn Bt.
On a stall at St Bride’s, Fleet Street (‘the journalists’ church’) Benn is commemorated with a plaque describing him as a ‘publisher and individualist.’ The Benns have long been associated with politics and the media in the UK. Benns have served in the House of Commons for over a century – Ernest Benn’s father, John Williams Benn, was the first to enter Parliament in 1892 as the Liberal candidate for Wapping, in London.
He was a noted figure in London politics – a leading light in the creation of the London County Council, forerunner to the mayoralty, created in 1889 – and served as chairman and leader of the Progressive Party, a short-lived force in the capital’s politics that campaigned for a kind of municipal socialism (sans revolutionary politics). He was popularly known as the ‘father of the electric tram’ after his work in 1903 for the introduction of London’s first electric tramway.
In a campaign speech for his successful bid to enter Parliament, he asked for his constituents to vote for him as one ‘who believed that with improved Parliamentary and Local Government the lives of the poor could be made brighter in the future than it had been in the past.’
If politics has become a kind of religion for the Benns, then religion has always been at the centre of their politics – John Williams Benn was teetotal and campaigned throughout his career against the ‘dosshouses’ of London. His father was Reverend Julius Benn, a non-conformist dissenting minister in the East End of London and a figure of some local repute, especially in his crusade against child homelessness, even attracting Charles Dickens to come and visit him in his parish. ‘One could see by the expression of this man’s eye and by his kindly face that Love ruled rather than Fear and Love was triumphant,’ noted the novelist.
Alongside his political activities, his work as a furniture designer led him to establish a number of trade journals, including The Cabinet Maker, which he founded in 1880 and which is still in print. His eldest son Ernest expanded the family firm, ‘Benn Brothers,’ into a publisher of all manner of books, including mass market cheap paperbacks, ‘New Ninepenny Novels’ and the ‘Blue Guides’ travel series.
Ernest also championed a creed of ‘individualism’ in the face of the ‘collectivist’ forces that were to dominate the politics of mid-war Europe, fascism and communism. In 1925, Ernest Benn wrote The Confessions of a Capitalist, a stirring defence of laissez-faire capitalism, which was still in print in the late forties.
In the late twenties, Benn founded The Individualist Bookshop, established to play the same role that the Fabian Bookshop had played in the development of socialist thinking in Britain for ‘individualism.’ According to its founding statement: ‘Benn told The Star: ‘It is not mere anti-Socialism. What we hope to promote is “Constructive Capitalism.” We think,’ he said, citing the bookshop’s mission statement, that ‘the economic battle has been carried on far too long upon ground chosen by the enemy.’
Until his death in 1954, he wrote pamphlets against ‘collectivism,’ with titles such as ‘The Dictatorship of the Statisticians’ and ‘Where is Democracy?’ The aftermath of the Second World War – an era in which emergency powers were exercised by the British state long after the conflict had ended, and amidst the birth of massive new social spending and control of the media via national broadcast organs like the BBC – provided plenty of grist to this individualist’s mill.
He called the wartime identity cards, still in use six years after the war had ended, a ‘degrading totalitarian conception.’ He continued: ‘Blush to see how far we have fallen from the heights of the moral stature of our grandfathers; think of England as the Sanctuary to which all were free to come and to be free…’
In February 1951, Benn recorded in his diary: ‘The Census Order is published… I propose to be a passive resister or conscientious objector and am trying to get into the newspapers with a declaration that I will not obey this “law”.’ And so he did.
On the day after census day in April, Benn’s protest made the front page of The Times. Indeed, it was covered in over a hundred newspapers across the land. The journalist Harold Nicolson noted: ‘Had the nation fifty million Sir Ernest Benns, there could have been no census.’
Benn pleaded guilty to the offence and his defence counsel told the court he was proud to do so. He continued his crusade against the forces of ‘Bumbledom,’ his code for bureaucrats and meddling officials, publishing his last book The State, the Enemy a year before his death in 1954.
A reviewer in The Listener responded:
‘Like the solar system, the grand design of British politics is sometimes enlivened by chance visitors from outer space. These make no impression on the main planetary masses of official Conservative and Labour thinking, but are highly entertaining for all that. One of them is Benn’s Comet – a fiery particle with an unknown orbit which emits a wild bluish glare as it plunges in and out of the system… It is tempting to dismiss Sir Ernest as a reactionary or, more tolerantly, as an eccentric. But if the ‘reaction’ is from a precipice, and if the official and accepted ‘centre’ is off centre, what then…?’
It’s a wonderful image and encompasses well Benn’s occasionally monomaniacal defences of ‘liberty.’ But the idea that Benn’s ideas made ‘no impression’ was shown to be untrue in the fullness of time. Benn’s Society of Individualists eventually morphed into the Institute of Economic Affairs, one of the key influences on Margaret Thatcher and her intellectual godfather Keith Joseph.
His nephew Tony Benn was another ‘comet’ who mixed politics and religion, and whose fierce love of popular democracy in the dissenting tradition showed again the truth that liberty continued to be a ‘religion to the Benns’ well into the latter half of the century.
What would he think of his great-great grandson, eagerly filling out the 2021 Census? Let’s hope he’s merrily dashing off pamphlets in heaven against vaccine passports, ‘the enemy, the state’ and the ever-present forces of ‘Bumbledom.’