Understanding extremism in Scotland: public perceptions and experiences

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

1. Introduction

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, with fieldwork carried out between 9 May and 5 July 2022. This 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:

This section provides an overview of the background to this research programme and outlines the aim and research questions of this research exploring public understandings and experiences of extremism.

1.1 Background to the research

Prevent policy

Prevent is a strand of the UK Government's Counter-Terrorism Strategy CONTEST. The purpose of Prevent is to 'stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism' (Home Office, 2018). While counter-terrorism (and therefore Prevent) is a reserved matter and the responsibility of the UK Government, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) places a duty on sectors that are devolved from Westminster to the Scottish Government (including health and social care, prisons, the police, education and local authorities) to pay 'due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'. This is known as the Prevent duty.

The Prevent duty guidance for Scotland (Home Office, 2021a) outlines how specified authorities are expected to comply with this duty. There is sector-specific guidance for further education institutions (Home Office, 2021b) and higher education institutions (Home Office, 2021c).

The Scottish Government supports the specified sectors to fulfil their obligations under the Prevent duty, and ensures that mechanisms are in place for safeguarding and supporting individuals who may be susceptible to being drawn into terrorism as outlined in the Prevent Multi-Agency Panel (PMAP) Duty Guidance (Home Office, 2021d).

Key definitions

The UK Government currently adopts the following definition of extremism:

'vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas'. (Home Office, 2011: 107)

This definition was introduced in the 2011 Prevent strategy (Home Office, 2011), and is used as a working definition rather than a legal definition. This definition was used in the UK Government's Counter-Extremism Strategy (Home Office, 2015), which set out the UK Government's approach to countering 'both violent and non-violent extremism'. However, counter-extremism is a devolved matter and the Counter-Extremism Strategy and the UK Government's definition of extremism were not adopted in Scotland.

At present, therefore, the Scottish Government does not have an official definition of extremism. A review of evidence carried out by the Scottish Government (2023c) explored how extremism is defined in existing literature and highlighted the challenges with defining the concept. For example:

  • Various factors, such as the prevailing political culture, value systems and personal characteristics and experiences, influence how the term is understood, meaning it is an inherently relative and ambiguous term (Sotlar, 2004).
  • Extremism is often conceptualised as a continuum of beliefs and behaviours, which makes it difficult to capture in a definition (Wilkinson and van Rij, 2019).
  • Defining extremism too broadly can risk impeding rights to free speech and protest, while defining it too narrowly can lead to potentially extremist behaviours being overlooked (Redgrave et al., 2020).

These challenges have meant that while a range of definitions of extremism have been proposed, there is a general lack of consensus on how it should be defined.

Understanding extremism in Scotland

The evidence review carried out by the Scottish Government (2023c) also identified gaps relating to the extent and nature of extremism in Scotland, which impede understanding of whether current approaches are appropriate and impactful in preventing the spread of extremist ideologies and reducing terrorism in Scotland. In particular, the review showed that while tentative conclusions can be drawn from data relating to terrorist activity, Prevent referrals and public attitudes, there is a lack of research evidence on the prevalence and nature of extremism in Scotland specifically.

The Scottish Government is therefore developing a programme of research which aims to support understanding of extremism and Prevent delivery in Scotland. In the first instance, this research has sought to explore understandings, perceptions, and experiences of extremism from the perspective of the Scottish public, stakeholders[1] and public sector practitioners,[2] in three distinct but related projects.

The aim of this research is to develop understanding of how these groups define and understand extremism; their views on the extent to which extremism is a problem in Scotland and the types of extremism they consider to be more and less prevalent; as well as on how well they perceive current approaches to countering extremism in Scotland to be working.

This report focuses on the findings from the research exploring public understandings and experiences of extremism in Scotland.

1.2 Research aim and questions

The aim of this research was to explore understandings and experiences of extremism from the perspective of the Scottish public, hereafter referred to as 'the public'.

The study included thirteen research questions, which have been organised under five overarching themes.

Public understandings of extremism:

1. How does the public in Scotland define and understand extremism?

2. What are the public's views on the boundaries of extremism? For example, when does an act or behaviour cross the threshold into extremism?

3. How likely does the public think it is that extremism will translate into actual violence?

4. Do members of the public with different demographic characteristics diverge in how they perceive extremism?

Public views on existing definitions of extremism:

5. How far does the public's understanding of extremism in Scotland align with definitions and categorisations adopted in other contexts?

Public experiences of extremism:

6. To what extent have the public observed or experienced extremism in Scotland?

7. How do the public perceive extremism in Scotland to manifest as views, behaviours, and actions, particularly in the communities they live in?

Public views on the threat of extremism:

8. To what extent do the public perceive extremism to be a threat or problem in Scotland?

9. Have public perceptions of extremism as a threat or problem in Scotland changed over time?

10. Do the public think extremism is increasing, decreasing or is stable in Scotland?

11. What are the public's views on the types of extremism that are of most concern or growing concern currently, and why?

12. What are views on the key drivers of these concerns?

Public opinions on tackling extremism:

13. What are the levels of awareness of, and attitudes towards, how organisations are tackling extremism in Scotland?

1.3 Report structure

The next section details the methodology used to address the research aim and questions. This is followed by presentation of the findings, and a conclusion chapter which sets out key considerations from this research.


Email: SVT@gov.scot

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