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 1 – Introduction

This report presents findings from the 2019 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA), conducted between August 2019 and March 2020. It covers attitudes to government and public services and seeks to answer the following key questions:

  • How have attitudes to government, the health service, the economy and standards of living changed over time?
  • What factors are related to trust in government and who people think has, and ought to have, most influence over the way Scotland is run?
  • What are people's views on who is responsible for changes in the NHS, the economy and standards of living?
  • How engaged the Scottish public are politically – do they talk about politics with their friends, register what they think about an issue or consider it important to vote in elections?

This year's survey marks a milestone for SSA because it is the 20th anniversary of the survey. In that time the political and constitutional landscape of Scotland has changed markedly. Figure 1.1 provides a timeline of the key events that have occurred since SSA first started in 1999.


Figure 1.1 Key events 1999 to 2019
Figure 1.1 Timeline showing elections and key events from 1999 to 2019 as context for the report findings

Infographic Text:

SSAS Core Module timeline
1999: First election to the Scottish Parliament takes place –Labour are the largest party and form a coalition government with the-Liberal Democrats.
2001: UK General Election – Labour win a majority, (including 55 of the 72 seats in Scotland)
2003: Second election to the Scottish Parliament – Labour again the largest party, and form another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government
2005: UK General Election - Labour wins third majority in a row, and 41 of 59 seats in Scotland
2007: Third election to the Scottish Parliament - SNP are the largest party and form a minority government. The new administration changes its name from the ‘Scottish Executive’ to the ‘Scottish Government’
2008: Global financial crisis causes largest drop in UK GDP since the Great Depression
2010: UK General Election - Conservatives are the largest party and form a Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Labour are largest party in Scotland (winning 41 of 59 seats)
2011: Fourth election to the Scottish Parliament – SNP win and form a majority government
2012: Scotland Act 2012 transfers some fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament, including the creation of a new Scottish rate of income tax
2014: Scotland holds a referendum on independence and votes ‘no’ to being an independent country by 55% to 45%
2015: The right to vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections is extended to 16 and 17-year-olds
2015: UK General Election: Conservatives win majority. SNP are largest party in Scotland (winning 56 of 59 seats)
2016: Fifth election to the Scottish Parliament - SNP are largest party, and form a minority government
2016: UK holds a referendum on membership of the European Union and votes to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Scotland votes to remain by 62% to 38%

Political and constitutional context

There have been marked changes in the political and constitutional landscape since SSA first started 20 years ago. The Scottish Parliament was established in May 1999 and the first election returned a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. 

In the second election to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed. Since then voting patterns have shifted noticeably, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been the largest party in each of the subsequent Scottish Parliament elections, forming minority governments in 2007 and 2016 and a majority government in 2011.

The 2007 Scottish Parliament election that returned an SNP minority government was an historic event in Scottish politics for several reasons. This was the first change in the governing party in the Scottish Parliament since its establishment in 1999. It was also the first time since devolution that two different political parties led the administrations in Edinburgh and in London. It was the first election of a government with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on independence. 

The global financial crisis of 2008 caused a worldwide recession and, until the coronavirus pandemic, what was the largest drop in UK GDP since the Great Depression.[6] 

The 2010 UK General Election returned a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the first UK coalition government in post-war history. It was also the first UK election since the creation of the Scottish Parliament not to return a Labour government. UK General Elections in both 2015 and again in 2017 returned Conservative governments but with the latter being a minority Conservative government.

The Scotland Act 2012 devolved further powers to the Scottish Parliament and meant it would be responsible for raising around a third of its annual budget. New fiscal powers included a Scottish rate of income tax, borrowing powers for the Scottish Government and the power to introduce new taxes subject to agreement with the UK Government. As part of the Act, Scottish Ministers were also given powers relating to the misuse of drugs, the power to set the national speed limit and powers relating to the administration of elections to the Scottish Parliament.

A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country took place in 2014 with 55% voting 'no' and 45% voting 'yes'. Following the referendum, the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament was established. The Scotland Act 2016 followed, transferring to the Scottish Parliament a further range of new powers, including the ability to set the rates and thresholds of income tax, control over certain aspects of welfare policy and benefits, as well as management of the Crown Estate and Air Passenger Duty.

The referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in 2016 led to renewed constitutional debate in Scotland, with the majority (62%) of those voting in Scotland voting to remain compared with the overall majority across the UK (52%) voting to leave. 

The ongoing Brexit process that started after the 2016 referendum also provides an important political context for SSA 2019. The fieldwork period, which began in August 2019, spanned a period of considerable upheaval, including UK Parliamentary deadlock over EU exit legislation, the prorogation of the UK Parliament, and its subsequent reversal following legal challenge, and the calling of a December general election. At that election, the Conservative Party increased its majority, while at the same time, the SNP increased its seat share in Scotland (winning 48 of 59 seats).

Following the SNP's strong performance at the general election, the Scottish Government requested the transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow for a second independence referendum, arguing that the election result and the fact that a majority of those who voted in Scotland had voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum gave the Scottish Parliament a mandate to hold a second independence referendum. In January 2020, the Prime Minister wrote to the First Minister refusing the request. The new majority UK Government broke the previous UK Parliamentary deadlock on Brexit, and the UK officially left the EU on 31st January 2020.

Economic context

The early 2000s saw the continuation of relatively high economic growth, although unemployment was higher than current standards. However, falls in global productivity, the financial crisis in 2008 and sovereign debt crises in the Eurozone in the early 2010s have seen a protracted period of lower growth, accompanied by a period of lower interest rates. More recently, there has been increased uncertainty for the economy associated with the UK's exit from the EU and the potential implications for international trade, investment and movement of people. 

The Scottish economy slowed in 2019, with growth of 0.7% relative to 1.7% in 2018 and 1.1% in 2017,[fn] which was an improvement on some of the quarters in 2015/6 where the economy either stagnated or in some cases contracted. This growth has been found across a broad range of economic sectors, including services, construction and production sectors.[fn] The pattern of growth was also relatively volatile during 2019 with economic activity influenced by the Brexit deadlines in March and October. The labour market in Scotland performed strongly through 2019 by historical standards, with the Scottish employment rate reaching a record high (75.9%) and unemployment a record low (3.2%) during the year.[fn] 

The National Health Service in Scotland

The National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland, as in other areas of the UK, faces challenges from an increased demand for its services. This is caused by many factors, including an ageing population that require a greater amount of healthcare services than their younger counterparts. This rising demand puts pressure on the ability of the NHS in Scotland to meet its waiting time targets, two out of eight of which were missed in 2018/19.[fn] Audit Scotland highlighted that the Scottish Government's 2020 Vision for healthcare will not be met on time, and mentioned the pace of integration of health and social care has been too slow.[fn] However they also mentioned that, despite funding pressures, patients' experience of hospital care has improved with over 8 in 10 (86%) rating their full inpatient experience very positively in 2018.[fn],[fn]

Survey Methodology

Run annually by the Scottish Centre for Social Research since 1999, the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey provides a robust and reliable picture of changing public attitudes over time. This report presents findings from the Scottish Government 'core' module of questions concerning public attitudes to government, the NHS, the economy and living standards. This module has been funded by the Scottish Government since 2004, but for many questions the time series stretch back to 1999. SSA has, therefore, tracked changing attitudes to government and public services since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and throughout the past 20 years which has seen both constitutional changes and the economic downturn of 2008.

SSA is a face-to-face survey which uses a random sample of all those aged 16 and over living anywhere in Scotland (including the Highlands and islands). Fieldwork for SSA 2019 began on 30th August 2019 and ceased on 18th March 2020, slightly earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A pause in fieldwork took place for five weeks between 6th November 2019 and 12th December 2019 inclusive because of the General Election. 

The SSA 2019 sample size was 1022 completed interviews[fn] with an overall response rate of 41%, from an issued sample of 2790 addresses. Data are weighted in order to correct for non-response bias and over-sampling, and to ensure that they reflect the age-sex profile of the Scottish population. Further technical details about the survey are published in the separate Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2019 technical report at


All percentages cited in this report are based on the weighted data and are rounded to the nearest whole number. A percentage may be quoted in the text for a single category that aggregates two or more of the percentages shown in a table. The percentage for the single category may, because of rounding, differ by one percentage point from the sum of the percentages in the table. Differences shown in this publication are calculated using unrounded figures and may differ from the rounded figures shown in the text.

All differences described in the text (between different groups of people) are statistically significant at the 95% level or above, unless otherwise specified. This means that the probability of having found a difference of at least this size, if there was no actual difference in the population, is 5% or less. The term 'significant' is used in this report to refer to statistical significance and is not intended to imply substantive importance. Further details of significance testing and analysis are included in the separate technical report.

This 20th anniversary SSA publication presents time series data for each question, and sub-group analysis is focused on which groups may have driven changes in attitudes more than others over time for selected questions.

Full data tables for both the time series data and the 2019 sub-group analysis are available as 'supporting files' to this publication.

Fieldwork timing

This report discusses findings from 1999 through to 2019 which has seen a number of Scottish Parliament elections taking place in the same year as SSA collected data from people across Scotland. Elections to the Scottish Parliament were held in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2016. In each case, the election took place in the May of that year and the fieldwork for SSA began after the election, usually between May and July and running for the remainder of the year. So in each case, SSA data for Scottish Parliament election years reflects public attitudes after the new administration has been established. Similarly in the years when a UK General Election was held - 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017 – SSA fieldwork started in June or July of those years after the election was held and continued for the remainder of the year. However, as discussed above, in 2019 fieldwork started in August and then was paused during the time of the December UK General Election, leading to fieldwork being delayed and completed in March 2020. 

Table 1.1: Election dates in comparison with SSA fieldwork dates 1999 - 2019
Election SSA Fieldwork
1999 Scottish Parliament and local government elections (May) May to August 1999
2001 UK general election (June) June to November 2001
2003 Scottish Parliament and local government elections (May) May to October 2003
2005 UK general election (May) July to December 2005
2007 Scottish Parliament and local government elections (May) May to November 2007
2010 UK general election (May) June to October 2010
2011 Scottish Parliament election (May) June to October 2011
2012 Scottish local government elections (May) August to November 2012
2015 UK General Election (May) July 2015 to January 2016
2016 Scottish Parliament Election (May) July 2016 to December 2016
2017 Scottish local government elections (May) 2017 UK General Election (June) July 2017 to February 2018
2019 UK General Election (December) August 2019 to March 2020



Back to top