In a world too often dominated by anecdote, narratives and falsehoods, there is a need for a purely factual account of life in Britain today and how society has changed in recent decades. The facts exist, of course, and are available on the often impenetrable websites of government departments and the Office for National Statistics. But there are no simple guides to who we are as a nation, what we do and where we live.
Putting this right as we enter the census year of 2021 was the task undertaken by historian Boris Starling with the help of David Bradbury from the ONS. The Official History of Britain is a short, readable and rigorous account of British life since the first census in 1801, mixing the stunning breadth of official statistics with Starling’s concise writing and eye for surprising facts.
As the UK prepares for its 22nd and probably last traditionally decennial census on March 21 next year, the book highlights the value of collecting and recording the size, location and social status of the population over time. From the first census at the start of the 19th century, showing that the population of England and Wales at 8.9m was almost the same as that of London today and likewise the 1.6m people in Scotland resemble the number of people who live in and around Glasgow, Starling tracks the growth of population, changing lifestyles and employment through the census returns each decade thereafter.
The exceptions, of course, stem from the lack of a 1941 census during the second world war and the unfortunate fact that the 1931 census records were destroyed in a fire. Even though the census never asked people about their incomes, employment descriptions and classifications are sufficient to tell us much about society. The improvements in literacy, for example, are demonstrated by the classification of clerks in social class I up to 1901 before dropping down to social class II a decade later and being relegated to social class III in 1931.
The ONS will run parallel to its census next year a detailed examination of administrative data from schools, doctors, tax offices and local authorities to examine whether it can, in future, ditch the operation altogether. All the signs are that it will.
But in the meantime, Starling shows what can be gleaned from official data, both past and present, to better understand the Britain we live in today. Examining who we are, he documents the fall and rise in the age of parents with mothers of newborn babies averaging 29 years old just after the second world war to a trough in 1974 of 26.4 years and rising to hit 30.6 years old in 2018. Far from the tabloid caricature of council estates full of feckless teenage mothers in high rises, he notes that although the public tend to believe that 15 per cent of girls under 16 become pregnant, the actual figure is 0.5 per cent, while more than half of council homes are houses not flats.
It is the chapter on what we do that has the most capacity to surprise. At a time when Brexit talks have been stuck on the topic of fishing — accounting for less than 0.1 per cent of goods and services produced in the UK — we might have thought that in the still early days of the industrial revolution, the bulk of occupations would be agricultural. Even in 1841 only 22 per cent of jobs were in agriculture with services already accounting for 34 per cent. Now, more than 80 per cent of jobs are in the service sector.
While being admirably select in its statistics, The Official History of Britain, highlights the limitation of the traditional book format for presenting the information in a simple and engaging form. Inevitably there are too many numbers presented in the text; it is not easily searchable, and there are too few charts to highlight the trends clearly. The book also lacks sufficient international comparisons to place Britain’s society in the context of others, highlighting the only occasional exceptionalism of the UK.
Starling’s attempt to make a statistics book more readable is the insertion of frequent asides to the reader that detract from the factual account he presents. A short postscript imagining a UK census in 2121 is irredeemably naff. Those were minor irritations for me, as a reader who knew many of the trends and statistics under the spotlight. For those interested in the social history not steeped in the subject, the book provides an invaluable account of how modern Britain developed and the huge range of valuable statistics available at the ONS.
The statistical agency deserves credit for taking part in this project, but this book will soon be out of date. What is really needed is for the ONS to resurrect its annual Social Trends publication, which ceased in 2010. That had the same mission as this book, but even a decade ago was more comprehensive, easier to search and had better graphics.
The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office for National Statistics, by Boris Starling with David Bradbury, HarperCollins, £14.99