Publication - Research and analysis

Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: attitudes to government and political engagement

Findings from the 2019 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA), conducted between August 2019 and March 2020, on attitudes to government, the economy, the health service, levels of tax and spend, government priorities and political engagement

Chapter 4 – Political engagement

This chapter presents findings on political and civic engagement in 2019. The findings cover:

  • people's views on the importance of voting in UK, Scottish Parliament and local elections (and time series data);
  • a new question on how often people talked about government and politics with family and friends; and 
  • levels of participation in civic/political activities (and time series data).

Where time series data are available, the subgroup analysis focuses on the extent to which the attitudes of particular subgroups have driven overall recorded trends over time. For the new question on how often people talk about government and politics with family and friends subgroup analysis is discussed for the 2019 data.[15] 

Importance of voting

A key component of people's engagement with politics is how important they consider it to be to vote in elections. Three elections that Scottish citizens are eligible to vote in are UK Parliament general elections, elections to the Scottish Parliament and local council elections. People were asked how important they thought it was to vote in each of these elections, on a scale ranging from 'very important' to 'not important at all'. The results for each of these questions are shown in Table 4.1 below.

Table 4.1: How important do you think it is to vote in UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and local elections (2019)

 

UK Parliament % Scottish Parliament % Local elections %
Very important 71 75 68
Fairly important 18 19 23
Not very important 6 3 5
Not important at all 4 3 4
Unweighted base 1022 1022 1022

Base: all respondents

The majority of people thought it was very important to vote in each of the three elections. If the figures for 'very' and 'fairly important' are combined, the level of importance assigned to voting in each of the three elections is broadly similar but with voting in the Scottish Parliament election considered to be the most important (94%), followed by voting in local elections (91%) and then UK general elections (89%). 

Over time the proportion of people in Scotland who consider it important to vote in each of these elections has increased, though this change was greater for certain elections. Figure 4.1 shows these changes since the questions were first asked in 2004.

Figure 4.1: Proportion responding 'very' or 'fairly important': How important do you think it is to vote in UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and local council elections (2004-2019)
Figure 4.1: Bar chart showing the proportion who think it is important to vote in UK and Scottish elections (2004-2019)

Base: all respondents

The proportion who considered it 'very' or 'fairly important' to vote in Scottish Parliament elections was similar in 2004 and 2005 but increased by 15 percentage points between 2005 and when the questions were reintroduced in 2016, rising from 76% to 91%. In comparison, the equivalent figures for UK general elections was a 5-percentage point increase from 79% to 84% and for local elections the increase was 11 percentage points from 76% to 87%. Therefore, in the decade-long interim between when the questions were asked in 2005 and when they were reintroduced in 2016, there has been a relatively large increase in the importance attached to voting in Scottish Parliament elections among people in Scotland.

Since 2016 the results for these questions have been fairly consistent, although the proportion of the population feeling it 'very' or 'fairly important' to vote in the three elections has increased very slightly, so the proportion of people in Scotland thinking it 'very' or 'fairly' important to vote in each election was, in 2019, the highest it has been since the questions were first asked (94% for Scottish Parliament; 91% for local council; and 89% for UK general elections).

Have particular subgroups driven changes over time in attitudes to voting?

Exploring differences by subgroup from 2004, when the questions were first asked, to the latest figures for 2019 shows that the overall increase in the proportion of people in Scotland who thought it important to vote in these elections was driven by certain groups more than others. For the Scottish Parliament elections, the level of increase was greater among younger people and those who expressed a preference for independence. The proportion of those in the youngest age group who thought it important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections increased by 28 percentage points from 64% in 2004 to 92% in 2019, compared with an increase of 8 percentage points from 86% to 94% for the oldest age group in the same period. In 2004, around three-quarters (76%) of those who were independence supporters thought it important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, whereas nearly all (97%) of those who expressed a preference for independence in 2019 do so, an increase of 21 percentage points. In comparison, the increase among those who expressed a preference for remaining part of the UK was 11 percentage points, rising from 80% to 92%. 

Figure 4.2: Proportion of those who think it 'very' or 'fairly' important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections by age (2004-2019)
Figure 4.2: Bar chart showing the proportion who think it is important to vote in UK and Scottish elections by age (2004-2019)

Base: all respondents

Similar relationships were evident for UK general elections and local elections. The proportion of those in the youngest age group who thought it important to vote in UK general elections increased by 22 percentage points from 65% in 2004 to 87% in 2019, compared with an increase of 6 percentage points from 88% to 95% for those aged 65 and over. Similarly, the proportion of those in the youngest age group who thought it important to vote in local elections increased by 26 percentage points from 65% in 2004 to 91% in 2019, compared with a 4 percentage point increase from 88% to 91% for those aged 65 and over. The level of increase was also greater among those whose preference is independence compared with those who would prefer to remain as part of the UK for both UK and local council elections.

How often government and politics is talked about with family and friends

A new question in the 2019 survey asked people: 'How much, if at all, do you talk with other people about government and politics?' with responses ranging from 'every day or nearly every day' to 'never or practically never'. The responses to this new question are summarised in Table 4.2 below.

Table 4.2: How much, if at all, do you talk with other people about government and politics? (2019)
%
Every day or nearly every day 24
Less often but at least a few times a week 29
Less often but at least a few times a month 21
Less often but at least a few times a year 8
Never or practically never 17
Unweighted base 1022

Base: all respondents

The most common response, selected by just under 3 in 10 people (29%), was that they talked about politics with other people less often (than every day) but at least a few times a week. Just under a quarter of people in Scotland reported talking about politics every day (24%), with just over 1 in 5 talking about it at least a few times a month (21%), and 17% never talking about politics with other people. 

How did attitudes differ between subgroups in 2019?

Men (28%) were more likely to talk about politics every day than women (21%) and how often people talked about politics was related to both their level of education and their household income.[16] In general, those with higher levels of education, and those on higher household incomes, were more likely to talk about politics with others every day. Around 3 in 10 (31%) of those with a degree-level qualification spoke about politics with others every day, compared with 17% of those with no formal qualifications who did so. 

Unsurprisingly, a person's level of interest in politics and whether they read a daily newspaper were also related to how often they talked about politics. Of those who read a broadsheet paper, 36% of them talked about politics with others every day compared with 23% who did not read a paper. More than 4 in 10 (43%) of those with 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics spoke about it with others every day, compared with only 6% of those with 'not very much' or no interest in politics at all.

As shown in Figure 4.3, the likelihood of someone talking about politics with other people every day was also related to their political orientation. A third (33%) of those on the left of the political spectrum spoke about politics 'every day or nearly every day' with others, compared with 18% of those on the right. Similarly, 35% of those with the most liberal views spoke about politics 'every day or nearly every day', compared with just over a fifth (21%) of those in the authoritarian group. There were also differences by attitudes towards the EU and Scottish Independence. Europhiles were more likely (29%) to speak about politics 'every day or nearly every day' than Eurosceptics (20%),[17] as were those who expressed a preference for independence (29%) compared with those who expressed a preference to remain in the UK (21%).

Figure 4.3: Proportion who talked about politics with others every day (2019)
Figure 4.3: Bar chart showing proportion who talked about politics with others every day (2019)

Base: all respondents

Civic participation

As a way of measuring levels of civic participation, SSA has asked people in Scotland since 2004 whether they have done any of a range of activities to register what they thought about an issue. Before 2009, the question asked respondents whether they had ever done one of the activities listed, whereas from 2009 onwards the question wording changed to whether the respondent had done any of the activities in the last few years. 

Table 4.3 below shows the most commonly selected responses in 2019 alongside the years from 2009 (when the question wording was amended). In 2019, people in Scotland were most likely to have signed a petition (including online petitions) at 45%; followed by 28% of people who had contacted their local council; 21% had given money to a campaign or organisation; 17% had contacted an MP or MSP: and 16% had attended a public meeting. A third of people (33%) had not done any of the civic activities listed.

Table 4.3: Have people done any of the activities listed in the last few years as a way of registering what they thought about an issue (2009, 2013, 2015 & 2019)

2009* % 2013* % 2015* % 2019* %
Signed a petition (including online petitions) 28 38 43 45
Contacted my local council 23 26 27 28
Given money to a campaign or organisation 13 22 28 21
Contacted an MP or MSP 17 16 18 17
Attended a public meeting 14 15 18 16
No, have not done any of these 45 39 31 33
Unweighted base 1482 1497 1288 1022

* Responses sum to more than 100% because respondents could choose multiple options
Base: all respondents

The proportion of people in Scotland who have signed a petition, including online petitions, has increased by 16 percentage points from 28% in 2009 to 45% in 2019. The proportion who had given money to a campaign or organisation declined by 7 percentage points from a peak in 2015 of 28% to just over one-fifth (21%) in 2019. The proportion of people who have contacted their local council has increased gradually from 23% in 2009 to 28% in 2019,[18] whereas the proportion contacting an MP/MSP or attended a public meeting has remained fairly stable since 2009. In 2019, around two-thirds of people in Scotland (67%) had done at least one of the civic activities on the list compared with a third of people (33%) who said they had not done any of the activities listed in the past few years. This represents an increase of 12 percentage points in the proportion who have done at least one of the activities since the question was first asked in 2009. 

Have particular subgroups driven changes over time in the level of civic participation?

Exploring in more detail differences by subgroup between the years 2009 and 2019, show that certain groups were associated with changes in the level of civic participation more than others. The fall in the proportion of people who had done none of the activities listed was 12 percentage points between 2009 and 2019 but was greater among younger people and those with the most liberal views. In 2009, 51% of those aged 18 to 34 years old had not done any of the activities as a way of registering what they thought about an issue. This declined to 27% by 2019, a drop of 24 percentage points, compared with a decrease of only 4 percentage points for those aged 65 and over (47% in 2009 to 43% in 2019), resulting in a 12-percentage point gap between the two groups. Those with the most liberal views were consistently less likely than those in the authoritarian group to not have done any of these civic activities, however, between 2009 and 2019, there was a 23-percentage point decline from 40% to 17% in the level of non-participation among those in the liberal group compared with only a 6-percentage point decline from 48% to 42% among those in the authoritarian group. 

The increase in the proportion of people in Scotland who had signed a petition was also driven by younger people, with an increase of 32 percentage points between 2009 and 2019 for those in the youngest age group, compared with an increase of 7 percentage points for those aged 65 and over. The level of increase was also higher for those with the most liberal views, as well as among those who took a greater interest in politics. In 2009, around a third (34%) of those in the liberal group had signed a petition which had increased to two-thirds (66%) by 2019, an increase of 32 percentage points, compared with only a 7-percentage point increase among those in the authoritarian group. Between 2009 and 2019, there was a 21- percentage point increase in the proportion of those with 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics who had signed a petition compared with only a 10- percentage point increase for those with 'not very much' or 'none at all'. The general increase in the proportion of people who had signed a petition between 2009 and 2019 could have been the result of the increased prevalence of online petitions in this period, as well as the ease of sharing them on social media, though further research would be needed to determine how far this trend has influenced the increase. 

The proportion of people in Scotland who had given money to a campaign or organisation increased by 8 percentage points between 2009 and 2019. This increase was higher among those with the most liberal views and those with a greater interest in politics. Between 2009 and 2019, the proportion of those with liberal views who said they had given to a campaign or organisation increased by 15 percentage points while in the same period the proportion of those in the authoritarian group remained the same. A similar relationship was seen between those with 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics, among whom there was a 13-percentage point rise, compared with only a 3-percentage point rise among those with 'not very much' interest in politics or 'none at all'.


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Email: social_research@gov.scot