Publication - Research and analysis

Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2011: Core Module - Attitudes to Government, the Economy and Public Services in Scotland

Published: 24 Jun 2012
ISBN:
9781780459110

This report uses SSA data from 1999 onwards to explore changing attitudes to government, the economy and public services. It also discusses findings on who people think should be responsible for providing and paying for particular public services.

Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2011: Core Module - Attitudes to Government, the Economy and Public Services in Scotland
2 Changing Attitudes to Government in Scotland

2 Changing Attitudes to Government in Scotland

Introduction

2.1 This chapter summarises trends in:

  • Trust in government (to act in Scotland's interests and to make fair decisions)
  • General levels of awareness of government activities
  • Perceptions of responsiveness of government
  • Views of the impact of having a Scottish Parliament on Scotland's voice within the UK.

2.2 The findings in this chapter show trends in attitudes of people in Scotland towards both the Scottish and UK governments.

Trust in government

2.3 SSA includes questions on two aspects of political trust, measuring, first, trust in governments (UK and Scottish) to work in Scotland's best long-term interest, and second, trust to make fair decisions. The proportion of people who trust the Scottish Government 'just about always' or 'most of the time' to act in Scotland's best interests has increased by 10 percentage points since 2010, from 61% to 71% - a return to the high level recorded in the year of the previous Scottish election in 2007 (Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1: Trust in the UK and Scottish Government to act in Scotland's interests? (1999-2007, 2009-2010, % trust 'just about always'/'most of the time')

Figure 2.1: Trust in the UK and Scottish Government to act in Scotland's interests? (1999-2007, 2009-2010, % trust 'just about always'/'most of the time')

Base: All respondents
Sample size: see Annex B, Table 2

2.4 Previous evidence from both the Scottish and British Social Attitudes surveys (Ormston & Reid, 2011, Ormston, 2010, Curtice, 2012), have shown that public attitudes towards government tend to be more positive in election years - a phenomenon sometimes called an 'election bounce'. Comparing SSA data over time peaks in levels of trust are apparent in 2003, 2007 and 2011 (all Scottish Parliament election years). However, while in comparison with surrounding years an 'election bounce' is clearly apparent in 2007 and 2011, it is also important to note that levels of trust in the Scottish Government have been consistently high between 2007 and 2011. In 2009 and 2010, 61% trusted the Scottish Government to act in Scotland's best interests - a significantly higher figure than in all previous non-election years since 2002.

2.5 In comparison with 71% who said they trusted the Scottish Government 'just about always' or 'most of the time' to act in Scotland's interests, just 18% expressed a similar level of trust in the UK Government. Levels of trust in the UK Government to act in Scotland's best interests have always been much lower than the level of trust in the Scottish institutions. While trust in the UK Government has been in steady decline since 2007, when 35% said they trusted them 'just about always' or 'most of the time' the 18% figure recorded in 2011 was within the range recorded between 2000 and 2006.[8]

2.6 A second pair of questions on trust in the UK and Scottish governments, first asked in 2006, focus on trust in government to make fair decisions. Fair decisions are defined as 'decisions that are fair to different groups of people in the UK/Scotland'. Although comparisons of findings from the two sets of trust questions must be treated with caution as the questions use different answer scales[9], levels of trust in the Scottish Government to make fair decisions have always been somewhat lower than levels of trust to act in Scotland's best interests. This perhaps reflects the inherent difficulty government's face in reaching decisions that are perceived as being equally fair to all groups in society. However, the pattern of change over time is similar for both dimensions of trust in the Scottish Government. In 2011 46% of people in Scotland trusted the Scottish Government 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' to make fair decisions - an increase from 35% in 2010 (Figure 2.2). Again, an 'election bounce' effect is apparent, with similarly high levels of trust to make fair decisions recorded in 2007 and 2011 but lower levels in non-election years.

Figure 2.2: Trust in the UK and Scottish Government to make fair decisions? (2006-2007, 2009-2011, % trust 'a great deal'/'quite a lot')

Figure 2.2: Trust in the UK and Scottish Government to make fair decisions? (2006-2007, 2009-2011, % trust 'a great deal'/'quite a lot')

Base: All respondents
Sample size: see Annex B, Table 2

2.7 Levels of trust in the UK Government to make fair decisions have followed a somewhat different pattern. In 2007, relatively higher levels of trust to make fair decisions were recorded for both the UK Government and the Scottish Government. However, trust in the UK Government fell back from 33% in 2007 to 18% two years later (2009, the year in which the MPs expenses scandal was widely reported in the British media), before recovering slightly to 24% in 2010. In 2011, trust in the UK Government to make fair decisions had again fallen back to 18%.

Public engagement and awareness of government

2.8 Encouraging active public participation has been one of the key principles of the Scottish Parliament since its establishment in 1999 (Consultative Steering Group, 1999). As discussed in Chapter One, one aspect of public engagement with the political system is voter turnout. However, between elections, the government is keen to engage the public more directly, through responding to consultations, writing to their MPs, engaging in public debate about political issues and public services, protesting, or signing a petition, for example.

2.9 Awareness of government is arguably a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for engagement - if people know nothing about what government is doing, they are unlikely to voice an opinion about this or otherwise engage in the political process. SSA asks people how much they have seen or heard about the activities of the Scottish and UK governments in the last 12 months. In 2011 the level of awareness in Scottish Government activities had increased to the highest level ever recorded by the survey, with nearly half of people (49%) saying they had seen or heard 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' about their activities (Table 2.1). This was also the first time that awareness of the Scottish Government has been higher (albeit only slightly) than awareness of the UK Government (49% compared with 46%, Table 2.2). In terms of longer-term trends, the proportion of the Scottish population claiming to have seen or heard either a great deal or quite a lot about both the Scottish Government and the UK Government has consistently been higher in the three years from 2009 to 2011 compared with the three years from 2004 to 2006 (Tables 2.1 and 2.2).

Table 2.1: How much have people seen or heard about the activities of the Scottish Government/Scottish Executive1 in the last 12 months? (2004-2006, 20092 - 2011, column %)

2004 2005 2006 2009 2010 2011
% % % % % %
A great deal/quite a lot 29 30 35 46 38 49
Some 30 28 31 29 31 27
Not very much/nothing at all 40 40 33 24 31 24
Don't know 1 1 1 1 1 *
Sample size 1637 1549 1594 1482 1495 1197

1 - Prior to 2009, the question asked about the 'Scottish Executive'.
2 - This question was not asked in SSA 2007

Table 2.2: How much have people seen or heard about the activities of the UK Government in the last 12 months? (2004-2006, 20091 - 2011, column %)

2004 2005 2006 2009 2010 2011
% % % % % %
A great deal/quite a lot 34 39 41 52 48 46
Some 29 26 26 23 26 26
Not very much/nothing at all 36 34 32 24 26 28
Don't know 1 2 1 1 1 1
Sample size 1637 1549 1594 1482 1495 1197

1 - This question was not asked in SSA 2007

Perceptions of government responsiveness

2.10 In addition to being aware of what government does, public engagement also arguably requires that people feel that government is willing and able to respond to their wishes - a process referred to as 'system efficacy' (Bromley & Curtice, 2002). If people believe that governments are either unwilling to listen to their views or unable to act upon them, they may feel there is little point in getting involved. For example, McLaverty et al (2004) show that a key barrier to people participating in consultations is a belief that government will not do anything in response.

2.11 Since 2004, SSA has included questions on how good the Scottish Government and the UK Governments are at listening to people's views before taking decisions. In 2011, 56% felt the Scottish Government was 'very' or 'quite' good at listening to people's views before taking decisions - an increase of 11 percentage points on 2010 (45%) and 20 points since 2006 (36%).

Figure 2.3: How good are the Scottish Executive/Government and the UK Government at listening to people's views before taking decisions? (2004-2007, 2009-2011, % 'very good'/'quite good')

Figure 2.3: How good are the Scottish Executive/Government and the UK Government at listening to people's views before taking decisions? (2004-2007, 2009-2011, % 'very good'/'quite good')

Base: All respondents
Sample size: see Annex B, Table 2

Note that from 2004-2007 the question asked about the 'Scottish Executive'. In 2009 and 2010, it asked about the 'Scottish Government'.

2.12 Perceptions in Scotland of how good the UK Government is at listening to people's views before taking decisions have consistently been more negative since these questions were first asked in 2004. Typically, only around half as many as say the Scottish Government is good at listening as have said the same about the UK Government. In 2011, the gap in attitudes was even more pronounced - almost three times as many people said the Scottish Government was good at listening as said the same of the UK Government (56% compared with 19%). If the slight increase in positive perceptions of the UK Government's listening skills in 2010 reflected increased optimism following the 2010 General election, this optimism does not appear to have been sustained.

2.13 Another way of measuring government responsiveness is to ask whether people think that having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how their country is run. Since 1999, SSA has asked people whether they think having a Scottish Parliament gives people in Scotland more say in how Scotland is governed, less say or whether it is making no difference. Between 2010 and 2011, there was a dramatic rise in the proportion of people in Scotland saying that they think the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say, from 42% to 60%. This figure was the highest recorded since 1999, when the question was framed prospectively ('Will a Scottish Parliament give ordinary people more say … etc.?') and findings were generally interpreted as reflecting people's expectations of the new Scottish Parliament rather than actual evaluations of its operation. So in 2011 for the first time, perceptions of the impact of having a Scottish Parliament on ordinary people's say in government appear to be living up to the high expectations the public had for the parliament at its inception.

2.14 Previous Scottish Parliament election years (2003 and 2007) have also been marked by an increase in the proportion of people saying that having the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say. However, the size of the increase in positive attitudes between 2010 and 2011 goes far beyond that recorded in those previous Scottish election years.

Figure 2.4: Does having a Scottish Parliament give ordinary people more say in how Scotland is governed, less say, or is it making no difference?[10] (1999-2007, 2009-2011, %)

Figure 2.4: Does having a Scottish Parliament give ordinary people more say in how Scotland is governed, less say, or is it making no difference?[10] (1999-2007, 2009-2011, %)

Base: All respondents
Sample size: see Annex B, Table 2

Voice

2.15 Finally, SSA also ask people whether they think that having a Scottish Parliament is giving Scotland a stronger voice in the UK, a weaker voice, or is making no difference. A sharp increase in the proportion giving a positive response is again apparent. Sixty nine per cent of people in Scotland in 2011 thought that having a Scottish Parliament gave Scotland a stronger voice in the UK - a 20 percentage point increase on 2010 (49%). This figure is (almost) as high as that recorded in 1999 - suggesting that in 2011, for the first time, public perceptions of the Parliament almost matched their early expectations.

2.16 Between 2006 and 2007 a similarly sharp increase was recorded (from 43% to 61%), suggesting that Scottish Parliament elections may have a particular effect on people's perceptions of how much impact the Scottish Parliament has on Scotland's voice within the UK. However, it is also worth noting that the increases recorded in 2007 and 2011 were sharper in comparison with the more modest 'election bounce' of 10 percentage points in 2003. This may reflect the fact that the 2007 and 2011 elections resulted in a different political party (the SNP) in power in Holyrood compared with Westminster. Perhaps when the party with the most votes in a Holyrood election holds different views from the Westminster government, this particularly strengthens people's perception that having a Scottish Parliament is giving Scotland a stronger voice in the UK.

Figure 2.5: Perceptions of the impact of having a Scottish Parliament on Scotland's voice in the UK (1999-2007, 2009-2011, %)

Figure 2.5: Perceptions of the impact of having a Scottish Parliament on Scotland's voice in the UK (1999-2007, 2009-2011, %)

Base: All respondents
Sample size: see Annex B, Table 2

How do attitudes to government vary?

2.17 So far this chapter has shown that positive attitudes towards the Scottish Government and Parliament increased between 2010 and 2011. But were all groups in Scottish society equally positive? And can any particular differences between sub-groups help explain the marked increase in positive attitudes towards the Scottish Government in 2011?

2.18 Previous SSA reports (Ormston, 2010, Ormston & Sharp, 2007) have identified various factors associated with differing attitudes to government, including:

  • Gender
  • Education
  • Newspaper readership
  • Party identification
  • Interest in politics
  • Constitutional preference

2.19 This section assesses whether such differences are still apparent in 2011, and examines changes between 2010 and 2011 in relation to the four questions on attitudes towards government in Scotland on which there has been most change:

  • Trust in the Scottish Government to act in Scotland's best interests
  • Whether the Scottish Government is good at listening to people's views before making decisions
  • Whether the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is governed
  • Whether having a Scottish Parliament gives Scotland a stronger voice in the UK.

Who is more positive about government in Scotland in 2011?

2.20 In 2011, those most likely to express positive views about the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament included:[11]

  • Men - men were more likely than women to trust the Scottish Government and feel it is good at listening to people's views. They were also more likely to feel the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say and gives Scotland a stronger voice in the UK. For example, 77% of men compared with 66% of women said they trust the Scottish Government 'just about always' or 'most of the time'. These findings are in line with previous SSA reports, which have tended to find that men are more trusting in government than are women (e.g. Ormston, 2010).
  • Graduates - those with degrees were more likely to give positive responses to all four questions compared with those with no educational qualifications.
  • Broadsheet readers - people who read broadsheet newspapers were more likely than those who read a tabloid to trust the Scottish Government to act in Scotland's best interests (79% compared with 67%).[12]

2.21 However, demographic differences in attitudes to government were far less pronounced than differences by political attitudes (reflecting similar findings in Christensen and Laegreid, 2005):

  • People who are interested in politics - people who said they had 'a great deal' or 'quite at lot' of interest in politics in general were much more likely than the less politically interested to express positive views about government in Scotland on all four measures. For example, 74% of those with a 'great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics thought that having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run, compared with 48% of those with not very much or no interest.
  • SNP identifiers - people who identify with the SNP rather than any other political party were more likely to give positive responses to all four questions.[13] For example, 83% of SNP identifiers felt having a Scottish Parliament a stronger voice in the UK, compared with between 65% and 67% of those who identified with other political parties, and 45% of those with no party-political affiliation.
  • People who favour more powers for the Scottish Parliament - SSA 2011 asked people to say what organisation they thought should make decisions for Scotland.[14] In general, those who favoured the Scottish Parliament having more powers tended to express more positive views about the Scottish Government and Parliament. For example, just 33% of those who felt the UK Government should make all decisions for Scotland trusted the Scottish Government 'just about always' or 'most of the time', compared with 75-76% of those who felt the Scottish Parliament should either make all decisions for Scotland, or all decisions except defence and foreign affairs.

2.22 Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who are not interested in politics and do not feel any affinity with the main political parties in Scotland tend to be among the least positive in their appraisals of government. In contrast with the Scottish population as a whole, only a minority of those who did not identify with a particular political party felt the Scottish Government was good at listening (26%), felt having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say (35%), or felt that it gives Scotland a stronger voice in the UK (45%). Similarly, among those who said they had 'not very much' or no interest in politics under half (42%) felt that the Scottish Government was good at listening or that having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say (48%).

Whose views have changed since 2010?

2.23 Did changes in attitudes to the Scottish Government and Parliament become more positive across the board between 2010 and 2011, or did some groups shift their opinion more than others? As indicated in Tables A.11 to A.14 in Annex A, significant increases in positive attitudes were seen across nearly all of the sub-groups examined for all four measures of attitudes towards the Scottish Government. Men and women, those with and without degrees, tabloid and broadsheet readers, supporters of most political parties, and those with higher and lower levels of interest in politics were all more likely to express positive views about the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament in 2011 compared with 2010.

2.24 However, although positive attitudes increased across many groups in Scottish society, there were some variations in the degree of change. For example:

  • The views of the least politically interested appeared to change less between 2010 and 2011 than did those of people who had at least some interest in politics. For example, among those who had some interest in politics, there was a 26 percentage point increase between 2010 and 2011 in the proportion of those who felt having a Scottish Parliament gives Scotland a stronger voice in the world. Among those with not very much or no interest, the equivalent increase was just 13 percentage points.
  • Men's views appeared to change more than women's. In particular, the proportion of men who felt that having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run increased from 44% to 67% - a 23 percentage point increase, compared with a 14 point increase among women.
  • The views of tabloid readers appear to have shifted more than those of broadsheet readers. For example, in 2010 just 40% of tabloid readers felt that having a Scottish Parliament gave Scotland a stronger voice in the UK. By 2011, this had increased 26 percentage points, to 66%. In contrast, the 9 point increase in broadsheet readers expressing this view (from 63% to 74%) was more modest.[15] One possible explanation for this increase in positive responses among tabloid readers is the change in political affiliation of the Scottish Sun to the SNP during the 2011 Scottish election campaign (Hassan, 2011).

Party political identification

2.25 One obvious factor which might explain the scale of the increase in positive attitudes towards the Scottish Government between 2010 and 2011 is the increase in the proportion of people in Scotland who voted for the party that formed the Scottish Government. In 2007 the SNP secured 33% of the constituency vote. This increased to 45% in the 2011 Scottish elections.

2.26 Unsurprisingly, people who either vote for or identify with the current government tend to be more positive about that government, perhaps as a result of feeling that their views are being represented by it. And as discussed above, in 2011 SNP identifiers did indeed express the most positive views about government in Scotland.

2.27 However, as illustrated in Figure 2.6, the attitudes of Labour and Conservative identifiers also became significantly more positive between 2010 and 2011. Similar patterns were apparent across other measures. So while part of the reason for the large increase in positive attitudes between 2010 and 2011 is the fact that the number of SNP voters and identifiers has increased in this period, it is not the only explanation.

Figure 2.6: Having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run by party identification (2010-2011, %)

Figure 2.6: Having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run by party identification (2010-2011, %)

Base: All respondents
See Annex A, Table A.13 for sample sizes and full results.

2.28 The pattern in Figure 2.6 is similar to findings from 2007 (see Ormston, 2008). Perhaps Scottish elections are simply an effective means of increasing engagement and support for Scottish political institutions, whatever party you support. However, in 2011 (in contrast with 2007), this increased support was not always apparent among those who do not identify with any political party. Thus while the 2011 election year seems to have been associated with an increase in positive views of government in Scotland among SNP, Labour and Conservative identifiers, the impact of the elections on non-partisans is therefore less clear. The change in attitudes between 2010 and 2011 among Liberal Democrat supporters was also less clear cut.[16]


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