12 February 2013

I recently read about an oddity of the monitoring by Cornwall Council of people’s identities. Alex Folkes, a Libdem unitary councillor, has pointed out that a form used to apply for housing and council tax benefits put Cornish/gipsy/traveller in the same identity tick box. The council is sensibly now changing that and giving the Cornish a separate box.

Folkes challenged the absence of a separate tick box for Cornish identity because he thinks a purpose of the monitoring form should be to discover whether the identity make up of the applicants matches or deviates from the “balance of the community as a whole,” the council then trying to put any mismatch right. That is a reasonable point. Additionally, he writes about the ‘sensitivities that Cornish people sometimes feel about their identities’ and that it is ‘offensive’ for all of them to put Cornish people and travellers and gipsies in what he rightly calls a ‘bucket category’. If we are to have such monitoring then the Cornish should have a tick box of their own.

Whatever you do, don’t mention the English
I do have doubts about the usefulness of this sort of monitoring at local and national level; additional to the practical difficulties, underpinning it there is a hotchpotch of components, a mix of colour and geography in an incoherent way, the imprisonment of people in a single identity group, the random inclusion and exclusion of groups, and the assumption that this aspect of a person is of especial importance for their relationship with service provision and use. However, let me go along with it for the moment.

First, I wish to point out that there is no tick box at all on the application form for people in Cornwall who see themselves as English, a majority of those here according to the 2011 census. They are presumably in the box for White British which looks to me like a bucket category and perhaps we can talk also about offensiveness and the indifference to English sensitivities. In the 2011 census the nationality question showed that 59 percent of the people in Cornwall described themselves and their children as solely English, with another 10 percent saying English combined with another identity; the figures for solely British were 15 percent; and for solely Cornish a written-in 10 percent. Those figures make the absence of an English tickbox bizarre.

Second, there is a further oddity. Recent Cornwall Council consultation forms I have seen had several identity tick boxes for respondents. If I recall rightly, there was reasonably a separate one for Cornish but none specifically for English. There was another bucket category ‘White (for example, British, Scottish)’ which seems an extraordinary way of inviting English people here to identify themselves.

The official vanishing of the English people in Cornwall, by far the largest single specific group in Cornwall, is an issue to be explored. Perhaps Cornwall Council will think about amending all its identity monitoring to include English?

Cornwall Council forms ask about ethnic background. The 2011 census asked separate questions on ethnicity and nationality; I am not convinced that the distinction is sharply clear and I have used identity as a catch-all term. Additionally, the census authorities have released the write-in data for Cornish under the nationality question but not under the ethnicity question; write-in Cornish ethnic data will eventually be available as a commissioned release, ie paid for. Census data has been released for English as a nationality but the ethnicity tick box was for an undifferentiated category English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British and that data includes Cornish. I find official identity data a muddle.