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The 1939 Register: where did Britain sleep as war was declared?

The register brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. What will happen for other records like it?

The 1939 Register is a “wartime Domesday Book”. Vast and yet intimate, it is a picture of precisely where people in England and Wales slept on the night of 29 September 1939. Forty-one million handwritten entries record jobs, date of birth and marital status, filling books that would reach twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral if stacked together. Refugee children who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe are listed with their adoptive families. The “Cambridge Five” Soviet spies are there. Ian Fleming gives his occupation as “stockbroker”, not novelist; Oswald Mosley is an “ex-officer, ex-MP”.

In the online version, which was published last week, the Register is feted as a powerful tool for family history. And why not: 1939 was the year when Virginia Woolf – sleeping at her country home in Sussex on the night of the 29th – wrote: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?”

It brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. But there is an enormous distance between the way it was made and the way it is now being sold. During National Registration Week, data was gathered by 65,000 public enumerators – often unemployed office workers – who delivered questionnaires and wrote them up. “Were it not for the fact that there is a war on,” the Daily Mail said on 26 September, “Mrs Great Britain would not be taking kindly to the man presenting himself on her doorstep this week.”

When an attempt was made to introduce a national registration scheme during the Great War, it was smeared as “Prussification”, an adoption of German bureaucratic values. In 1939, parents were just as nervous about drawing attention to children who might be conscripted. It worked the second time because it was linked to ration books. Children not on the Register might not be conscripted, but neither would they eat. Rather grimly, civil servants referred to the Register’s success as “parasitic vitality”.

After 1945, the information was used to found the National Health Service. The originals are held at the National Archives in Kew, with the records of both the living and recently dead redacted. But as of 2 November, 28 million records have been released online by the family history company Findmypast. Searching is free, but to look at the documentation for one household costs £6.95. Fifteen households costs £54.95.

Ancestry is a lucrative business. Andrew Marr, who has been promoting the resource out of enthusiasm rather than any paid brand ambassadorship, tweeted: “hardworking geeks spent two years digitising this . . . a huge job. Don’t they deserve to be paid?” Certainly, the National Archives don’t have funding enough to support this sort of undertaking any more.

Two days after the Register was published, the government released its “Snooper’s Charter”, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. “Spooks have been harvesting our phone and email data for 14 years,” the Mail said.

Rather than a freeze-frame of one night, this would be rolling, documentary footage for future historians. But if they can get hold of this data, it seems likely they’ll have to pay for that, too. On 20 November, consultation closes on the introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests: the very tool used by one researcher to trigger the release of the 1939 Register. 

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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