The concept of ethnicity has been described by the UK's highest court in this way

For a group to constitute an ethnic group... it must, in my opinion, regard itself, and be regarded by others, as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics. Some of these characteristics are essential; others are not essential but one or more of them will commonly be found... The conditions which appear to me to be essential are these: — (1) a long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive; (2) a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners... In addition to those two essential characteristics the following characteristics are, in my opinion, relevant; (3) either a common geographical origin, or descent from a small number of common ancestors; (4) a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group; (5) a common literature peculiar to the group; (6) a common religion... (7) being a minority or being an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community, for example a conquered people (say, the inhabitants of England shortly after the Norman conquest) and their conquerors might both be ethnic groups.

A group defined by reference to enough of these characteristics would be capable of including... for example, persons who marry into the group... Provided a person who joins the group feels himself or herself to be a member of it, and is accepted by other members, then he is... a member...

In my opinion, it is possible for a person to fall into a particular racial group either by birth or by adherence, and it makes no difference... by which route he finds his way into the group...

...the word " ethnic " is of Greek origin, being derived from the Greek word " ethnos ", the basic meaning of which appears to have been simply " a group " not limited by reference to racial or any other distinguishing characteristics—see Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (8th edition)

The official UK statistical body and the general structure of its surveys as they relate to ethnicity

In the United Kingdom the official body which gathers and publishes statistics is the Office for National Statistics.

Among other things it conducts a census every 10 years which everyone is required to complete. From 1991 census has asked questions about ethnicity.

The style of the ethnicity question used by ONS in the census is often also found in use by government departments and other public bodies (in the employment field) and is used by larger private companies.

The Ethnicity question is presented in the form of two large boxes (there is also a three, four and five large box versions but I will concentrate initially on the two large box version for simplicity of explanation - my question is pertinent whichever version is used).

The first large box contains a tickbox list containing e.g.





and ending with a Any other White background (please specify) box

Immediately to the right of that large box (or directly underneath it) is another large box which contains a tickbox list of ethnicities. These can vary to a degree over time but neither English, Scottish, Welsh nor Irish is ever in this list in the second large box. At the bottom of the list in the second large box there is a tickbox saying Any other non-White background (please specify)

The instructions say you can only choose one large box and only one box within that so that when statistics are presented in, for example, a pie chart (see here for example) the slices of the pie will be distinct and not overlap.

This means that the last option in each large box which says any other XXX background carries the meaning of any other XXX background not covered in any of the above rather than any other way you would like to describe your XXX background. A consequence of this is that the presence or absence of a particular predefined option can have a strong influence on the answer given. For example take the case of someone who considers themselves a Kerryman first and foremost, and only secondarily as Irish. If neither Kerryman nor Irish are in the predefined list in the large box they are completing they might tick Any other... and write Kerryman. But if Irish is in the predefined list and Kerryman is not they would tick Irish because although they identify with additional ethnicities it would not be true to say that their ethnicity is other than - i.e. not - Irish.

Some information about the United Kingdom for those not familiar with it

By way background for those not familiar with the United Kingdom, the UK is a unitary state which consists of the island of Great Britain and the north-east corner of the island of Ireland which is called Northern Ireland. Great Britain contains three countries England, Wales, and Scotland but, as you would expect, people who grew up in Wales, for example, or whose parents identify as Welsh, or for some other reason feel an affinity to Wales might describe themselves as Welsh even if they currently reside in England. Everyone who is Welsh, Scottish or English would describe themselves as British but people vary as to what they initially describe themselves as when asked - e.g. whether they immediately say British or immediately say e.g. Scottish. Most English people (and Welsh and Scottish people) have a light skin tone (which the ONS calls "white"). Historically (including before the emergence of English as a fully-fledged ethnicity with its own language) there have always been a minority of people on the island of Great Britain with noticeably darker skin tone (which the ONS calls "black") but because of intermarriage the number of people with distinctly darker than average skin remained relatively low until about 300 years ago when identifiable groups of people with dark skin emerged particularly in Liverpool and Cardiff and immigration in the last 100 years has increased that small minority to a large minority. Up until just over 200 years ago the whole of the island of Ireland was a single country - the Kingdom of Ireland. The Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain were then united as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. About 100 years ago the majority of the land mass of Ireland became a separate state, the Republic of Ireland, but Northern Ireland remained part of the UK (now renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Although some people in Northern Ireland might give Northern Irish (or "Ulster") as their ethnic identity, because the partition of the island of Ireland is relatively recent most people either identify as British or Irish. Of those who identify as Irish in Northern Ireland, the majority would actually prefer Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland if that were to be possible and it is important for them to give their ethnicity as Irish and not Northern Irish - i.e. they do not want their expression of ethnicity to be artificially constrained to a subset of how they see themselves.

The experience of someone filling in the classic two large box survey form

If you consider an English person who is black filling in the Ethnicity question it is immediately apparent to them that the first large box is not for them. Usually the first large box will actually be headed White (and the second large box will be headed non-White) but even if the first large box is not headed White it is obvious from the last tickbox of the list

Any other White background (please specify)

that all the boxes above, including English are to be understood as only being appropriate for those who are white.

Turning to the second large box, English is not among the options listed (nor are Scottish, Welsh or Irish) but Caribbean is. At the bottom of the list it allows you to specify as an ethnicity

Any other non-White background (please specify)

but the words any other suggest that if any of the options listed above applies in any way that should be ticked and the any other option should not be ticked unless all the options listed above it are completely inapplicable. Most black people in the UK now are descendants of those who came to the UK from Caribbean islands within the last 70 years and may well consider themselves to have a Caribbean ethnicity as well as English, Scottish or Welsh etc. It is not necessary to prioritise ethnicities but even if they feel that English is their primary ethnicity they are likely to feel that they should tick Caribbean if that is one of their ethnicities and, having chosen that, they may feel that it does not seem right to choose any other instead (the instructions say tick one box only) even if they do not consider Caribbean to be their main ethnicity.

In any event writing English under any other non-White background does not seem right here because, whilst there are millions of English people who are black, English as a term is not itself a specifically non-White background

You would not want to put Black English because Black English is not an ethnicity. The whole idea of an ethnic group is that it is a group. Saying, in effect, you can't be part of our group but we will set up another group a bit like ours for people with skin like yours (as the ONS has actually done on more recent surveys with the Black British option) is not the same. This is similar to the position of a person with Irish ethnicity in Northern Ireland who objects to their expression of ethnicity being constrained to the subset Northern Irish.

This general proposition - that e.g. Black English is not a commonly recognised ethnicity - seems to be confirmed by ONS research into terms such as Black Welsh which concluded:

The combination of ethnic minority and UK identity, such as “Black Welsh”, was noticed in England, but was rarely noticed by ethnic minority respondents.

Some people (I imagine probably not from the UK) have given answers to this Politics SE question implying that the above ONS research shows that everyone in the UK thinks that you can only be of English (or Welsh) ethnicity if you are "white". This is a misunderstanding. It is precisely because Welsh and English ethnicity is not (and never has been) restricted to particular skin tones that Black Welsh is not recognised as a specific ethnicity - i.e. you can be black and ethnically Welsh but not Black Welsh as a specific ethnicity. Similarly you can be a blue-eyed Welshman but Blue Welsh is not an ethnicity.

The Ethnicity question in the 2021 Census form

The above describes the classic two large box system but more recently there seems to have developed a five large box version which can be seen in the paper version of the 2021 Census

Sometimes surveys are taken face to face and the ONS Guidance states:

What instruction should be used when asking the ethnic group question in a face-to-face interviewer-led survey and self-completion survey?

It is recommended that the ethnic group question will be asked in a way that allows the respondent to see all possible response options before making their decision. Therefore, in face-to-face interviewer-led surveys, a single show card should be used that presents all response options. The interviewer should then ask the respondent to select the option that best describes their ethnic group or background.

This makes clear that the fact that a black person inevitably sees, on the paper census form, a box headed White which includes within it the word English - thus suggesting that only white people can be English - is a deliberate design feature which it is important to show to all respondents before they state their ethnicity.

Completing the 2021 Census online

If you use the online version the gist of the first question is Are you White, Black, Asian or something else?

Initial Screen

If you select White you are then given English as an option

Further Screen if White is selected

But if you select Black (or Asian or any other high-level option other than White) you are taken to a screen which does not have English as an option. If you do this you will not have seen the screen which suggests that English is specific to the White group but you will be given a number of predefined options none of which is English.

Further Screen if Black is selected

So the survey form and online version provided by the ONS apparently does not cater for people who are not "white" who regard themselves as English. (The same applies to Scottish and Welsh.)

Note: the domicile question and it recent renaming

In order to ensure that nobody is missed off the census or double counted each household is required to fill it in based on who was present in the household on a ONS-specified date. Of course some people present in a household on a particular date may be staying there only temporarily so censuses have always asked about each person's domicile - i.e. where they usually live or where they call home. This question about domicile has, in the 2021 census been named "national identity" which may be liable to confuse because "identity" normally refers to something such as ethnicity rather than mere domicile but ONS notes make clear that this question is not about ethnicity. It is "not dependent on your ethnic group or citizenship". Of course not everyone reads the ONS notes and one might speculate as to why this question has been renamed so that it sounds a bit like ethnicity and has been placed immediately before the actual ethnicity question. What is clear is that if a black person enters English as an answer to this question it will have no effect on the recording of their ethnicity

The practice in other countries

I don't know about every other country but I know that France does not ask about ethnicity and most other EU member states do not either. The USA allows those answering to select any ethnicity or ethnicities in any combination - unlike with the UK ONS no combinations are ruled out or made difficult to select.


Prominent black Members of the UK Parliament have objected to people telling them that they cannot be English if they are black. In March 2021 David Lammy MP told a caller who said that he could not be English because he was black:

I want my identities recognised appropriately ... I’m of African descent, African-Caribbean descent but I am English.

So my question is

What is the rationale of preventing English people who are black (or indeed any English person with a skin tone darker than what the ONS regards as "white") saying on the census form (or in other surveys/questionnaires based on the same structure) that they are of English ethnicity?

  • 6
    Note that in the most recent census, a question on national identity, including all the consistuent countries of the UK was asked immediately before the request for ethnicity.
    – origimbo
    Nov 24, 2021 at 13:07
  • 2
    @origimbo The ONS notes makes clear that that question is about domicile but the use of the word "identity" might suggest - to someone who does not read the notes - that it is about ethnicity. What is the purpose of renaming it and placing it immediately before the ethnicity question? Is it a sort of consolation prize - i.e. you can't say you have English ethnicity but we will allow you to say that England is your home!
    – Nemo
    Nov 26, 2021 at 10:28
  • 1
    The question-title asks why people aren't allowed to make a selection, but you're actually asking why it's a write-in rather than pre-defined, right?
    – Nat
    Nov 27, 2021 at 9:13
  • 1
    Separately, this question's kind of a big wall-of-words without much formatting. Seems like you might be able to significantly streamline it by showing the image of the relevant survey-question, then asking why the option isn't pre-defined. Commentary and explanations of the background/context could go after that, helping to organize.
    – Nat
    Nov 27, 2021 at 9:23
  • 2
    I think this question is getting out of control. It is rapidly becoming a thesis on the nature of ethnicity in the united kingdom. And as such it is becoming less useful.
    – James K
    Nov 27, 2021 at 19:47

4 Answers 4


I'm not going to try and answer the question of how it should be phrased, but I can point you to a resource the ONS publishes explaining their own reasoning. Emphasis mine.


Ethnic group high-level category descriptions

We tested four versions of the two high-level category descriptions at the first stage of the ethnic group question:

  • version 1: “Asian or Asian British” and “Black, Black British, Caribbean or African”
  • version 2: “Asian, Asian Welsh or Asian British” and “Black, Black Welsh, Black British, Caribbean or African”
  • version 3: “Asian or Asian British, including Asian Welsh” and “Black, Black British, including Black Welsh, Caribbean or African”
  • version 4: “Asian or Asian Welsh, English, Scottish, Northern Irish or British” and “Black, Black Welsh, English, Scottish, Northern Irish or British, Caribbean or African” (in locations in England “English” was listed before “Welsh”)

When additional high-level identities were included in the response categories, respondents were more likely to record an identity that was inconsistent with how they described themselves. This was more likely depending on how many words were included in the response categories. The combination of ethnic minority and UK identity, such as “Black Welsh”, was noticed in England, but was rarely noticed by ethnic minority respondents.

Following this testing, we have recommended using the version 2 phrasing, with the high-level categories “Asian, Asian Welsh or Asian British” and “Black, Black Welsh, Black British, Caribbean or African”. These will appear on the questionnaire in Wales only.

  • 5
    Note that the 2021 census is structured somewhat differently from the 1991 one, and has an entire separate question on national identity.
    – origimbo
    Nov 24, 2021 at 12:59
  • 1
    That explains why e.g. Black English is not presented as a predefined ethnicity (i.e. nobody recognises Black English as an ethnicity) but it does not explain why a black person is prevented from self-identifying as being of English ethnicity.
    – Nemo
    Nov 25, 2021 at 16:24
  • 3
    An analogy to try to illustrate what I mean. Supposing the ONS survey prevented people with blond hair identifying as having an English ethnicity (they don't but this is just a example to illustrate the point) and the question is asked - why is that? It would not be a satisfactory explanation to say that Blond English is not a widely recognised ethnicity.
    – Nemo
    Nov 25, 2021 at 17:42
  • @Nemo because it isn't an English ethnicity, it's White (English), split between a heading and a radio button.
    – Caleth
    Nov 26, 2021 at 15:18
  • @Nemo There's two possibilities for your hypothetical, one where White (English) is the only ethnicity where English is a part, which corresponds to "Blond English is not a widely recognised ethnicity.", but equally plausible is "Blond (English) is a widely recognised ethnicity." and the survey is written to be inclusive of that, so you get english as a sub-option for blondes as well as whites
    – Caleth
    Nov 26, 2021 at 15:23

My impression as a (white) immigrant to the UK is English/Scottish/Welsh identity is treated rather differently from British. While Britishness is a rather inclusive concept, the individual national ethnicities are much less so, and much more tied to ancestry. For me personally, this means that after having lived in the UK for a decade now, I feel very much on the way to becoming British, but I doubt that I will ever be Welsh. I've met people who's great-grandparents moved to England from Ireland, who identifed as British, but certaintly not as English; or Scottish folks who were born and raised in Yorkshire.

In the case of Black people who moved to Great Britain from the Caribbean in the 50s/60s and their descendents, it means that while they are obviously British, it is much less clear whether they are English/Welsh/Scottish. If one of them tells me they are, I'll believe them, but it would also surprise me a bit. This seems to be the same attitude reflected in the ONS material: They operate under the default assumption that English people are white, but you can give answers disagreeing with this.

  • ...but those people who moved to England in the 50s and 60s may have had children. I know it was a racist time, but you can't tell me there were zero children who might plausibly check more than one box. I mean, what shall Harry and Meghan's kids put? (OK, realistically, "American", since it seems that's where they will grow up, but you get my meaning.) Nov 26, 2021 at 22:17
  • 1
    For the record, as an Asian third-generation immigrant (both my parents and I born in England), I would consider my Northern Englishness to be a much more significant part of my identity than my "Britishness", whatever that vague notion is. To be more specific, I would describe my ethnicity as non-English (Pakistani specifically) and my national identity as English - although I do usually tick British-Pakistani on forms because that's always been the default selection for someone of my background and I've never thought about it much beyond that. Nov 27, 2021 at 1:32
  • @Arno British can be a wider term. People in the British Channel Islands, for example, are British although they are outside the UK. The same applies to the British colonies around the world - most of them are sovereign nations now rather than colonies but until the 1950s/1960s "the Sun never set on the British Empire".
    – Nemo
    Nov 30, 2021 at 9:34

They are specifically asking about ethnicity. It really comes down to a rather clumsy mix of (a) race and (b) for white people, which part of Europe your ancestors were from. The question is about trying to distinguish between different "shades" of white. So it's distinguishing between white people whose ancestors immigrated from Ireland, white people whose ancestors have been in Britain for as long as anybody knows, or white people from other places.

In that context, "black British" doesn't make a lot of sense. And, yes, there have been black people in Britain since Roman times. Any attempt to group people into neat categories is always a minefield.

  • 1
    This works until people have two parents (not to mention 4 grandparents, etc.). Even if the census creators swoon at the idea of a mixed white+non-white couple, I can't believe no one of mixed Scottish/Irish heritage hasn't complained yet in an impossible-to-ignore manner. Nov 26, 2021 at 22:30
  • It does seem as if, whatever the courts said, the ONS is using "ethnicity" here simply as a synonym for "race" or "ancestry", rather than anything about culture or allegiance. If so, as @user3067860 says, subdividing "White" into English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Other is a bit silly, because there's so much mobility between the countries that by that rule most UK people count as "White, other (British)". Go back a few generations and my ancestors were scattered across all four, and I suspect that's not unusual. (My dad calls himself Welsh when England are losing at football :-D )
    – A. B.
    Oct 28, 2022 at 2:40

Short Answer

The ONS is attempting to capture race statistics according to how a racist would classify people. It is interested in self-identification of ethnicity primarily as a proxy for skin tone.

Long Answer

Collecting data according to racist categories

A 2017 report by the European Commission Data collection in the field of ethnicity states that:

In order to measure (in)equality, it may be as important to identify the perceived racial and ethnic origin as the one self-identified.

This appears to be a widely held view. The rationale is that if statistics are to be useful in helping to examine the effects of discrimination, and the effectiveness of measures to combat discrimination, it is necessary to classify people from the discriminator’s point of view. If someone of Caribbean descent who self-identifies as English or British is discriminated against it will not be, so the theory goes, because they are English or British but rather because of the colour of their skin so it is believed that, one way or another, statisticians need to record skin tone.

This appears to reflect the approach of ONS:

the ethnic group question was never ‘intended to establish the “ethnic” composition of the population as it might be understood by sociologists, anthropologists and historians,’ rather, to ‘capture in a common sense or pragmatic way the categories of person that were likely to be victims of “racial” discrimination

ONS Information paper: Deciding which tick-boxes to add to the ethnic group question in the 2011 England and Wales Census

The political unacceptability of questions about skin tone and the co-incidence of the Windrush proxy

It is obvious that actually asking people to state their skin tone would be completely unacceptable as well as being unreliable, so a proxy has to be found – i.e. a question or series of questions has to be devised which are just about acceptable and which are capable of being processed so as to produce statistics for skin tone.

After World War II as many former British colonies were in the process of becoming independent the British Nationality Act 1948 was passed one of the purposes of which was to cater for the transition of the people in each colony from being British citizens to having a separate citizenship of the newly independent country. The citizenship laws passed by newly independent countries did not always make everyone in them citizens of the country so there was a need to ensure that nobody would be left stateless. An unintended consequence of the 1948 Act was that it ended up giving 800 million people around the world the right to emigrate to the United Kingdom.

Not all 800m came to the UK, of course, but the fact that they could do so, without visas, meant that they the became a recruiting ground for UK government attempts to help fill gaps in the UK labour market for both skilled and unskilled jobs, including in public services such as the newly created National Health Service and London Transport, by encouraging economic migration. Many people were specifically brought to the UK on ships: notably the Empire Windrush in 1948, which sailed from the Caribbean, and those who came to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960 are commonly referred to as the Windrush Generation (even if they did not arrive on that particular ship). But in 1971 the Immigration Act 1971 introduced restrictions on immigration from what were then Commonwealth countries.

This historical phenomenon – large scale immigration from Caribbean islands over a relatively short period of time – was a gift to any statistician wanting to measure the prevalence of particular skin tones without actually having to ask what would have obviously been an unacceptable question. The Windrush immigration increased the proportion of the UK population who were “black” so much that asking where a respondent was born and where their parents were born was thought to be a reasonable proxy for recording skin tone.

Though the census was the most obvious vehicle to gather information on both the extent of racial discrimination and the effectiveness of the Race Relations Acts of the 1960s, it was not considered feasible to ask a question on race or ethnic identity in preparation for the 1971 census. The assertion of Dale and Holdsworth ( 1997 ) that the General Register Office (the predecessor of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys) was adamant that such a question be neither asked nor answered is not entirely correct. The decision to include a question on parents’ country of birth – rather than the previously asked question about the respondents’ ‘country of origin’ or a direct question on race or ethnicity – reveals the internal politicking at work within the state apparatus. …the need for racial data was acknowledged by senior Home Office bureaucrat Jack Howard-Drake, who wrote in a memo that his initial concern surrounded ‘the impossibility of defining immigrant or colour in precise terms,’ but that he was ‘now not so sure that this view is correct,’ noting that ‘[with] the emergence of the second generation it will become increasingly important for us to have as much statistical information as we can about the coloured minority in the United Kingdom’. In early 1968 the matter was referred to the Statistical Policy Committee for Ministers to decide; therein, the majority of the Committee were clearly in favour of collecting information about racial origin and decided to make the suggestion at the upcoming Home Affairs Committee meeting. At this meeting the Minister of Health proposed that a question on ethnic origin be included on the census, but the Secretary of State recorded his concern about the ‘political difficulties’ that would result, and the decision to include a question on ‘parents’ country of origin’ rather than a direct question on race was decided at the Ministerial level though Cabinet acknowledged that using this proxy would not provide accurate information… These ‘considerable political implications’ were many: first, British bureaucrats and Ministers alike felt that it was impossible to define race or colour in the precise terms required for a statistical exercise such as the census. Second, there was a clear concern that asking a direct question on race or colour would be perceived as offensive to both ‘coloured’ and white respondents. The proposal to instead ask the country of origin of the respondent’s parents was more familiar, and thus less controversial, since the 1961 census asked for country of birth with the intention of identifying immigrants to the United Kingdom. The 1971 question, designed to identify the children of these immigrants, was not [an] extreme break from tradition… the 1971 census collected information on both the respondent’s country of birth (as in the 1961 census) and his or her parent’s country of birth in order to gauge the approximate size of the racial population. It was acknowledged at the time – and indeed, throughout the policy-making process – that this method would be inaccurate for enumerating those white Britons who happened to be born in colonies overseas, pockets of the historic (and indigenous) Black British population, in, for example, Cardiff and Liverpool and people of mixed-race.

The Ethnic Question: Census Politics in Great Britain Debra Thompson

Thinking the unthinkable: a census question based on classification by skin tone

Not only was the 1971 proxy question less reliable than hoped but it was clear that, being dependant on the Windrush phenomenon, it would become less and less reliable as time moved on. Those in government convinced of the need to collect statistics on skin tone eventually came to think the unthinkable, that respondents might actually be asked questions which could not be wholly disguised. Whilst both “black” and “white” respondents were bound to be offended by such questions, it was thought that “black” respondents would be the most resistant and initial testing of prototype questions started there.

Fieldwork by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys began in 1975, and a variety of different forms of question were tried out in sample surveys designed to test the methodology. The basic form of the first question devised was: Race or ethnic group. Please tick the appropriate box to show the race or ethnic group to which the person belongs, or from which the person is descended. The boxes read: 1. White. 2. West Indian 3. African 4. Arab 5. Chinese 6. Indian 7. Pakistani 8. Bangladeshi 9. Sri Lankan 10. Any other race or ethnic group, or if of mixed racial or ethnic descent (please describe below)….

This version could not, however, be used in the census because the inclusion of a question which referred to colour (in this case “white”) was judged not appropriate for a government inquiry which was compulsory. A different version was therefore produced which was used in the 1979 Test Census, a voluntary enumeration covering the entire London Borough of Haringey (O.P.C.S. (1981)). The Haringey Test Census incorporated a split—half design. Half of all schedules included questions asked in the 1971 Census of Population about country of birth and country of birth of father and of mother. The other half included a modification of the direct question on race and ethnicity which read:

11. Racial or ethnic group. Please tick the appropriate box to show the racial or ethnic group to which the person belongs. If the person was born in the United Kingdom of West Indian, African, Asian, Chinese or “Other European” descent, please tick one of the boxes numbered 2 to 10 to show the group from which the person was descended. The boxes read: 1. English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish 2. Other European 3. West Indian or Guayanese 4. African 5. Indian 6. Pakistani 7. Bangladeshi 8. Arab 9. Chinese 10. Any other racial or ethnic group, or if of mixed racial or ethnic descent (please describe below).

The results of the test census were seriously affected by hostility towards the questions on racial or ethnic group, parents’ birthplaces and own country of birth, expressed by certain local black organizations and given publicity in the media. In particular 25,000 copies of a leaflet were said to have been distributed linking these questions to alleged plans for new nationality laws that “would make nationality dependent on your parents’ nationality, not where you were born ..... If we say now who is or is not of British descent, we may one day be asked to ‘go home’ if we were born here or not”. In the event only… one-quarter of West Indian households and two-fifths of households originating from the Indian subcontinent filled in the test census form. The quality of the answers on the completed forms was also much inferior to that obtained in previous tests in the period 1975-1978. Of the West Indians and Asians who did complete the form, as many as one-third said in a follow-up interview that they objected in principle to the inclusion of these questions in the next census. ' Even greater objections were expressed to the parents’ country of birth question. The largest proportion of errors occurred in recording information about second generation U.K.- born persons arising from ambiguity about what “English, etc.” in the first box really meant. This applied both to people of West Indian and Asian descent and to people of continental European descent. The actual 1981 British Census did not include a direct question on race and ethnicity or on parents’ country of birth. The decision to leave such questions out was taken at political level by ministers.

A Controversial Census Topic: Race and Ethnicity in the British Census Martin Bulmer

By the time "ethnicity"/race was first included as a census question - in the 1991 census - it had become clear to the ONS that the only way to make a skin-tone question even half acceptable was to elide it with an "ethnicity" question. The ONS is not interested or, at least, not primarily interested in self-identified ethnicity but need to use it to soften the otherwise unacceptable question about skin colour.


This is why the ONS could never accept an ethnicity question not linked to skin colour as it would force them to either abandon the objective of collecting data on skin colour or else to ask a stark additional standalone skin colour question which would be unacceptable.

I have not been able to find any unambiguous acknowledgement of this rationale in ONS publications but it seems to me to follow logically from the history as explained above and is consistent with the ONS statement that:

the ethnic group question was never ‘intended to establish the “ethnic” composition of the population as it might be understood by sociologists, anthropologists and historians,’ rather, to ‘capture in a common sense or pragmatic way the categories of person that were likely to be victims of “racial” discrimination

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