Understanding extremism in Scotland: public perceptions and experiences

Findings from research exploring public understandings and experiences of extremism in Scotland.

Executive Summary


The Scottish Government commissioned the Diffley Partnership and the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews to conduct research to explore public understandings and experiences of extremism in Scotland. This was carried out between February and December 2022.

The research is part of a wider programme of work to improve understanding of extremism in Scotland. Complementary research has been commissioned and conducted by the Scottish Government to explore the understandings and experiences of stakeholders and public sector practitioners:


The researchers firstly conducted a Rapid Evidence Review to inform the primary research design. This desk-based exercise confirmed that while the academic literature on extremism is extensive, primary research with the public in Scotland is lacking. The review paid particular attention to methods and questions which have been used in other studies to gain views from the public on this topic, to inform the development of the data collection tools.

The primary research adopted a mixed-methods approach to collect both a wide range of views and in-depth insights from members of the Scottish public. Firstly, a survey was administered online and by telephone in May 2022. There were 2,071 responses to the survey from residents of Scotland aged 16 and over, 1,568 of which were received online and 503 of which were via telephone.

The survey was followed by qualitative research which took place between 24 June and 13 July 2022. This consisted of five online focus groups with between four and seven participants in each, and eight follow-up interviews with a subgroup of focus group participants. The total number of participants in the qualitative research was 26, and the sample was designed to cover various demographic characteristics.

This report is predominantly based on analysis of the data collected through the primary research, with additional context added, where relevant and available, from secondary sources.

There were several limitations to this research, including that the sample of qualitative participants was small, and did not represent the full range of demographic groups that reside in Scotland. Further methodological detail can be found in section 2 of the report.

Key findings

Public understandings of extremism

Public understandings of extremism were subjective, nuanced and context dependent. Nearly three quarters (74%) of survey respondents were at least 'fairly confident' that they understood what the term meant. However, in-depth discussion suggested that members of the public are not necessarily either confident or fixed in their understandings of the term.

For example, participants' opinions about whether and how specific views and actions constitute extremism were highly subject to context, such as the time or place the view or action occurred, and their own opinion on the cause concerned.

Causing harm to others was widely held as an important threshold that defined the point for when an action was 'crossing the line' into extremism. Over half (53%) of survey respondents considered 'causing physical harm to a large number of people for political, religious or ideological reasons' to always represent extremism. In the qualitative research, causing harm to another person was seen as the point at which an act could be considered extremist. However, while some had a specific interpretation of harm as involving physical violence, others considered wider forms of harm to constitute extremism, such as inciting or encouraging violence, and disruption more broadly.

Significant overlap, but subtle differences, were seen between the terms 'extremism' and the terms 'terrorism', 'sectarianism' and 'hate crime'.

Public views on existing definitions of extremism

The research team presented different definitions of extremism to interview participants. Of those shown to participants, there was some preference for the definition adopted in Australia (Australian Government, 2022), partly because it makes explicit reference to violence.

Challenges were raised with the UK Government's definition of extremism (Home Office, 2011), which largely related to the use of the term 'British values'. It was felt that if values were to be mentioned, more neutral language should be used, with no reference to a specific country or culture. Participants who raised this issue seemed to be concerned with ensuring that any official definition of extremism used in Scotland would be widely applicable and, potentially, widely accepted.

Some participants struggled with the accessibility of the definitions presented and indicated a preference for a clear definition, expressed in plain English.

Splitting extremism into categories, including 'religiously-motivated', 'politically-motivated', and 'ideologically-' or 'identity-motivated', did not lead to more clarity or consensus in what was understood as extremism. Participants struggled to think of examples to 'fit' into each motivation, and 'ideology-' or 'identity-motivated' was seen to encapsulate all motivations.

Public experiences of extremism

A third (33%) of the public had experienced or observed extremism, either online or in person, in Scotland during the past five years.

Some groups within the population, including younger people and those from BAME communities, were more likely to say they had experienced or observed extremism than others. BAME communities were also more likely to say they had experienced or observed discrimination, violence or hate crime.

Public views on the threat of extremism

Extremism was perceived to be less of a problem in Scotland than in the rest of the UK or worldwide. Less than one in ten survey respondents (9%) stated that extremism was a big problem in Scotland, compared with 24% for the rest of the UK and 49% worldwide. This was reflected in the qualitative discussions, where participants generally saw the threat from extremism in Scotland to be low, and lower than in England.

When asked whether they considered extremism to be a problem in their local area, less than half (46%) considered extremism as a problem, and only 5% as a big problem. Survey respondents in Glasgow (58%) were more likely to identify extremism as a problem in their local area than any other parliamentary region. BAME respondents were also more likely to perceive extremism as a problem in their local area than white respondents (57% compared with 45%).

In the qualitative research, participants often made an association between population size and the threat of extremism. England's larger population was commonly cited as contributing to an increased threat of extremism when compared with Scotland, whilst more densely populated areas of Scotland were seen as experiencing higher threat than less-populated areas.

When asked how they felt the threat of extremism had changed over time, close to half (46%) believed the threat of extremism had risen over the last five years in Scotland, while 9% felt that it had decreased. In the qualitative research, those who felt that the threat had increased tended to focus on extremist attitudes, such as the growth of social media and its role in spreading extremist sentiment. Meanwhile, those who felt that the threat had decreased tended to focus on extremist behaviours, and terrorism in particular, over a longer time period. This was particularly true of older participants, who mentioned the decline in threat relating to the peace process in Northern Ireland within their lifetimes.

When asked about the next five years, almost half (45%) of survey respondents felt that the threat from extremism will rise, around a third (31%) that it will stay the same, and less than one in ten (9%) that it will decrease. Qualitative participants felt that threat levels would be affected by the extent of divisions in society and how extreme different sides of religious, political or ideological arguments became.

In terms of the forms of extremism that the public felt pose the biggest threat in Scotland, participants displayed particular concern about intra-Christian sectarianism, which was viewed as intertwined with extremism. This was regarded as most prevalent in the Central Belt.

Participants did not spontaneously refer to right-wing extremism or Islamist extremism within text responses to the survey or in the focus groups and interviews, and felt unable to comment on the extent to which different forms of extremism might exist in Scotland when presented with a list of groups.

Public opinions on tackling extremism

Survey responses to a question asking about views on the efforts of different organisations attempting to tackle extremism in Scotland were mixed for those who expressed an opinion. For each organisation, roughly half had a positive opinion and roughly half a negative opinion. High proportions of respondents answered 'don't know', indicating that many had limited awareness of what was being done by the different organisations.

Indeed, participants in the qualitative research were reluctant to say whether they thought particular organisations were doing enough or not doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland given their knowledge of their work was limited.

Awareness of Prevent, a strand of the UK Government's Counter-Terrorism Strategy CONTEST (Home Office, 2018), was very low within the small sample of qualitative participants. Nevertheless, participants expressed general support for Prevent in theory, and a desire for more awareness of how it works in practice.

Intervention by existing social contacts was identified as an important preliminary step in the counter-extremism process, and participants felt this should take place before triggering any formal referral process. That is, whilst they would be willing to refer an individual to Prevent if they felt this was needed, they discussed how friends, families or others might first attempt to engage with and help individuals themselves prior to deciding to refer them to Prevent.

Participants considered both intended positive and unintended negative outcomes that may arise from counter-extremism measures, for example the risk that population groups might be unfairly targeted.

Key considerations

Public understandings of extremism

Bodies tackling extremism in Scotland should be aware that while levels of confidence in understanding of extremism appeared high initially, qualitative discussions revealed that participants' understandings were wide-ranging, and highly malleable. Therefore, in any public messaging regarding the threat of extremism, forms extremism can take, or counter-extremism work more broadly, it may be beneficial to explain what is meant by the term 'extremism', by providing a definition.

This would also be helpful for future work to ascertain public attitudes towards and experiences of extremism, as this research has shown that when asked about their views and experiences, the public naturally think of concepts they associate with extremism such as terrorism, racism or radicalisation. Providing a clear definition may therefore support a more robust estimate of the extent of experiences of extremism in Scotland.

Several considerations from this research are relevant for any future work to develop a definition of extremism:

  • A definition of extremism should be accompanied with definitions of terms associated with extremism, including terrorism and hate crime, so that distinctions between the concepts are clear.
  • A definition of extremism would likely be more accepted by the public if it references causing harm, including, but not restricted, to violence.
  • Splitting extremism into different forms of motivation could be useful in encouraging the public to consider the different forms of extremism that exist.
  • Highlighting ideological or identity motivations within a definition was seen to incorporate systems of ideas or ideals including political and religious.
  • Referencing values attributed to any political or geographical area should be avoided.
  • A definition of extremism should be as clear as possible, expressed in plain English.

Public experiences of extremism

While a significant minority of respondents reported having observed or experienced extremism in the last five years, in the qualitative discussions a broad range of examples of extremism were shared, which were notable for the diversity of beliefs and actions that participants considered to be extremist, and for the different criteria that respondents used to determine that these incidents were examples of extremism. As noted above, in order to gain a more robust estimate of the extent of public experiences of extremism in future research, it would be helpful to provide a clear definition of what is meant by extremism to participants.

In the qualitative discussions, an association was drawn between population size and the threat of extremism. For example, England's larger population was commonly cited as contributing to an increased threat of extremism when compared with Scotland, whilst more populated areas of Scotland were seen as experiencing higher threat than less-populated areas.

This may indicate that participants naturally assume that less populated areas and countries have relatively low threat levels. While no published research was found to evidence a correlation between population size and level of threat from extremism, the Scottish Government may wish to carry out further research to explore whether levels of threat vary in this way.

Public opinions on tackling extremism

The Scottish Government, and other public bodies attempting to tackle extremism in Scotland, may wish to consider whether to present more to the public on how they are working to counter extremism and terrorism, given low awareness of this among participants.

The research indicates that the public would be supportive of work to counter online extremism, such as to minimise sharing of extremist views online. However, they may have limited understanding of the threat of online extremism or the counter measures for online extremism at present.

Further research

The research has indicated a range of differences in the understandings, views and experiences of different demographic groups, which this report has not commented on except when secondary sources of evidence were available that could help to explain these results. Further research may wish to explore these differences in greater detail. In particular, the findings suggest that research which explores the views of people living in different areas of Scotland, and the views of young people, may be particularly valuable.

Given that public views and experiences are subject to change, and that examples and topics brought up by participants are likely to be influenced by any topical coverage, it may be beneficial to explore how perceptions and views change in future. The research instruments designed for this project could be utilised to do so; for example, repetition of the survey could allow for analysis of trends over time.

Finally, this research focused on exploring public perceptions of the threat posed by extremism in Scotland. It demonstrated that the public have mixed views on the level of threat and were largely uncertain about the extent and reach of particular extremist groups or ideologies. Further research which seeks to develop understanding of the level of threat, drawing on different data, would be beneficial for informing Scottish Government efforts to counter extremism in Scotland.


Email: SVT@gov.scot

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