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 5 – Conclusions

SSA has tracked attitudes to government and public services since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The past two decades have seen periods of economic, political and constitutional change, including the financial crisis of 2008, referendums on both Scottish independence and the UK's membership of the EU, the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament, and the emergence of the SNP as the dominant political party of Scotland at both Holyrood and Westminster. SSA 2019 fieldwork took place before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and thus represents the final reading of public attitudes before the social and political impacts of another major event become clear.

In 2019, a majority of people in Scotland trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland's best interests and perceived the Scottish Government to be good at listening before taking decisions. A majority also felt that the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run and provides Scotland with a stronger voice in the UK. Although not reaching the heights of 2011 and 2015, levels of trust in the Scottish Government remained relatively stable between 2017 and 2019, while levels of trust in the UK Government fell. Those who identify as SNP supporters and those who believe that Scotland should be an independent country are more likely than their counterparts to display trust in the Scottish Government, a development that was not in evidence during the first decade of devolution.

Throughout the first ten years of devolution the UK Government was perceived to hold the most influence over how Scotland was run. However, in each of the years following the Scottish independence referendum, up to and including 2019, people have been equally likely to feel that the Scottish Government has the most influence over the way Scotland is run, as to feel that the UK Government does.

At the same time, around five times as many people in 2019 felt that the Scottish Government ought to have the most influence over the way Scotland is run as felt that the UK Government should exercise the most influence. In contrast to perceived levels of actual influence, and aside from a small drop in the proportion who believe the Scottish Government ought to have the most influence over how Scotland is run in the years prior to the 2014 independence referendum, this picture has remained relatively stable over the past two decades.

In 2019, over half of people in Scotland felt that taxation and government spending (on health, education and social benefits) should be increased, with a further 4 in 10 believing that the level of taxation and spending should be maintained at current levels. While the proportion who felt that the level of taxation and spending should be increased fell from over a half in 1999 to less than 4 in 10 a decade later, support for increased taxation and spending has since returned to 1999 levels. Similarly, while support for the principle of income redistribution declined during the first decade of devolution from over 6 in 10 in 1999 to less than 4 in 10 in 2009, the proportion who agree that government should redistribute income increased during the following years and now stands once again at over half.

Almost a quarter of people in Scotland in 2019 indicated that helping the economy grow should be the highest priority for the Scottish Government, followed by improving standards of education and improving people's health. Supporting economic growth has been registered as the top priority since the 2008 financial crisis, apart from in 2017, when improving standards of education was the top priority. Meanwhile, cutting crime which was consistently a high priority during the first decade of devolution has since declined, and has been selected as a priority by less than 1 in 10 since 2015.

In 2019, around two-thirds of people in Scotland were satisfied with the way in which the NHS runs – the highest level of satisfaction recorded by SSA since the advent of devolution. Despite this, almost half felt that the standard of the health service had fallen over the previous twelve months, with around 1 in 5 of those who perceive standards to have fallen blaming the policies of the Scottish Government and over 2 in 5 blaming the policies of the UK Government. Meanwhile, among those who perceive the standard of the health service in Scotland to have increased, over half credit the policies of the Scottish Government for this compared with around 1 in 10 who credit the policies of the UK Government.

Just over 2 in 5 in 2019 believed that the economy in Scotland was weaker than was the case twelve months previously, while a half felt that the general standard of living in Scotland had fallen over the same period. However, these were lower than the proportion of people who thought that the economy had grown weaker and the standard of living had fallen in Scotland in 2017 and also much lower than in 2009 following the global financial crisis. While, in 2019, around 1 in 5 of those who felt that the economy had weakened and the standard of living had fallen blamed the policies of the Scottish government, over half blamed the policies of the UK Government for this perceived decline. Meanwhile, those who believed that the economy had strengthened and that the standard of living had increased were once again more likely to credit the policies of the Scottish Government rather than the policies of the UK Government for this.

In 2019 almost 19 in 20 people in Scotland felt that it was important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, with around 9 in 10 stating that it was important to vote in UK Government and local elections. The proportion stating that it is important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections has risen by 15 percentage points over the past 15 years, with large increases seen in particular among younger people and those who express a preference for independence.

Around one-quarter of people in Scotland reported discussing government and politics with other people nearly every day in 2019, with a further 3 in 10 doing so at least a few times a week. Meanwhile, two-thirds of people in Scotland reported having engaged in an activity to register what they thought about an issue. The most popular method of civic participation was signing a petition, followed by contacting one's local council and giving money to a campaign or organisation. The proportion who reported having engaged in at least one civic activity to demonstrate what they thought about an issue has increased by 12 percentage points over the past decade, with this increase notable among younger age groups in particular.

The past two decades have seen a number of major political and economic changes in Scotland. Throughout this period, levels of trust in the Scottish Government have remained relatively high, while during the past decade in particular perceptions of the impact of the Scottish Parliament have become increasingly positive. Satisfaction with the NHS has also increased over the past 15 years, reaching its highest recorded level in 2019. However, SSA data suggest that there are still some challenges for the Scottish Government; while pre-2008 people were consistently more likely to feel that the strength of the economy and the standard of living in Scotland were increasing than that they were decreasing, the reversal of this trend in the years since, while improving slightly in 2019, remains visible.


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