But it caught on and in about 2,500 BC Egyptian pharaohs used the idea to work out how many men they would have available to build the pyramids.
By 2AD the Han dynasty in China used it to find out they had a population of 57.67 million people living in 12.36 million households. By then the Greeks were already onto it and it allowed the Romans, under Servius Tillius, to put the number of arm-bearing citizens available to him in 6BC at more than 80,000. The Romans so liked it they did it every five years and even gave it a name. The census.
But enough of the success of ancient civilisations and onto the SNP’s modern Scotland. It could make you yearn for Babylon.
We were supposed to have a census in Scotland in March last year. That was postponed, allegedly because of Covid, but that cannot be true since in June of the previous year the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claimed to have almost eradicated the coronavirus.
The fact that she did not manage what would have been a unique feat amongst world leaders against a global pandemic was put down to one thing – the English. Apparently, she suggested at the time, Westminster’s changes in travel restrictions stymied her efforts.
So, because she can, the First Minister decided that Scotland would have its own census this year, with a wide choice of genders and ethnicities that the Scottish Government tailored to our different needs.
More than a year on, the bumbling centre of pestilence that the First Minister would like us to believe that Westminster is has long ago completed its census with a 97 per cent response rate.
In Scotland, despite having ‘all the levers’ to conduct a census, ours goes on. And on. Only 77 per cent of us have responded so far. The 2021 census that became the 2022 census could become the 2023 census.
Another £10 million has been added to the cost, raising it to nearly £150 million – the kind of cash that could buy you three ferries, but admittedly not in Scotland.
And for what? Leading academics are already saying that even the extended deadline is unlikely to be met and what information is gleaned from a reluctant nation is unlikely to be of much use.
Censuses, like the one Mary and Joseph went home to Bethlehem to complete, are supposed to be short and focussed. An accurate snapshot of the nation. They are not supposed to take 30 times longer than a donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem which a pregnant woman did 2,000 years ago.
So what has gone wrong? Clearly a number of factors have come together to deliver the colossal failure that the Scottish census 2022 has turned out to be.
Firstly, delaying the census by a year meant the benefit from a UK-wide publicity campaign for completing the returns was lost. With the advantage of hindsight, Covid was no barrier to a successful census in England and Wales in 2021, but the SNP thought they knew better.
Secondly, there was needless political controversy around the wording of the questions on sex and gender, and on ethnic and national identity, leading some to be suspicious of the purposes of the census.
Women’s groups, in particular, objected to the ‘sex’ question being worded so those who identified as a particular gender could choose how they responded. What should have been an uncontroversial, straightforward exercise in data collection, was seen to be tainted by a particular social agenda.
Thirdly, there were practical issues with completion of the forms, with some reporting difficulties in filling these in online. Others who requested paper copies to complete in some cases did not receive them, or only after a long delay.
Completing the census, whatever concerns people have about the process, is a legal obligation. If you are reading this and have not yet filled it in, I would urge you to do so as soon as possible. You have until the end of this month to complete and return it, or potentially face a fine.
But we also need the Scottish Government to take urgent remedial action to sort out the mess of their own making. If this government cares remotely about Scotland, it must do more than just get young people to knock on doors and ask householders if they have filled in the census. They must stop wasting Scotland’s money in a time of cash crisis.
The responsible minister, Angus Robertson, addressed the Scottish Parliament on the issue last week, but convinced no-one that his government knew how to fix the problem.
Blaming the low response return on the war in Ukraine didn’t help his credibility. A little contrition, an acceptance that the SNP have mishandled the whole business, would be a useful starting point if he is serious about rebuilding public confidence in the process.
Censuses have been successfully run for thousands of years, in civilisations much less advanced than our own. Just last year our nearest neighbours ran one with a 97 per cent return rate.
Once again the SNP’s determination to ‘do things differently’ from the rest of the UK comes at the cost of Scotland being marked out for its incompetence, and becoming a laughing stock to anyone from around the world who cares to look.
To put it simply: even King Herod could run a census competently. Why is our SNP government so uniquely useless that it has failed where one of history’s greatest villains succeeded?
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife