6. Public views on the threat of extremism
This section relates to public views on the threat of extremism. The specific research questions explored include:
- To what extent do the public perceive extremism to be a threat or problem in Scotland?
- Have public perceptions of extremism as a threat or problem in Scotland changed over time?
- Do the public think extremism is increasing, decreasing or is stable in Scotland?
- What are the public's views on the types of extremism that are of most concern or growing concern currently, and why?
- What are views on the key drivers of these concerns?
Participants were asked for their views on the level of threat at different geographic scales, including across Scotland as well as in their local area, the rest of the UK and worldwide. In addition, participants were asked for their views on whether they feel the level of threat has changed in the last five years, and whether they feel it will change in the next five years. Variation in the perceived degree of threat across different groups within the population was also explored. The focus groups and interviews then provided an opportunity to explore views on the threat of extremism in Scotland in greater detail.
It is important to note that the level of threat perceived by members of the public will relate to their own understanding of the term 'extremism' (see section 3). As has been demonstrated, interpretations of this term varied among those who took part in this research and did not always align with the definitions used by governments or academics. Moreover, asking about threat levels will be subject to recency bias. That is, if members of the public had recently observed or experienced what they would consider as extremism, they may be more likely to report the threat as heightened.
6.2 Perceptions of the local, national, and international threat of extremism
The survey asked respondents how much of a problem they considered extremism to be in Scotland and their local area, as well as in the rest of the UK and worldwide. Respondents were given a choice of options ranging from 'no problem at all' through to 'a big problem' and were also able to say if they didn't know (Figure 6.1).
Q1. How much of a problem do you consider extremism to be in the following places?
Base: All respondents, n=2071.
Proportions of respondents selecting 'no problem at all' increased as the geographical proximity drew closer, and the geographical size diminished. Whilst only 2% considered extremism to be no problem at all worldwide, and 4% no problem at all in the rest of the UK, 14% considered extremism to be no problem at all in Scotland, rising to 44% for 'in my local area'.
Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents considered extremism to be a problem in Scotland (either minor, moderate or big). This was lower than the 87% regarding it as a problem worldwide and the 82% regarding it as a problem in the rest of the UK. Less than half (46%) of respondents considered extremism as a problem in their local area.
Looking at perceptions of the severity of the problem across geographies, almost half of respondents saw extremism as a big problem worldwide (49%). Around a quarter (24%) saw extremism as a big problem in the rest of the UK, and around one in ten (9%) saw extremism as a big problem in Scotland.
Further analysis explored respondents' perceptions of the threat in their local area in more detail. This showed that people in Glasgow (58%) were more likely to identify extremism as a problem in their local area than any other parliamentary regions (36% of those in the Highlands and Islands, 41% of those in North East Scotland, 43% of those in Mid Scotland and Fife, 43% of those in South Scotland, 45% of those in Lothian, 46% of those in West Scotland, and 48% of those in Central Scotland).
People in the Highlands and Islands had a different perception of extremism in their local area than in other parliamentary regions, with 55% of people in this region selecting extremism as no problem at all, compared with 45% of those in Lothian, 29% of those in Glasgow, 43% of those in West Scotland and 40% of those in Central Scotland.
Females (49%) were more likely to believe extremism is a problem in their local area than males (42%), while younger people aged 16-34 (59%) were more likely to believe extremism is a problem in their local area than any other age group (51% of those aged 35-44, 38% of those aged 45-54, 43% of those aged 55-64, and 32% of those aged 65 and over).
BAME respondents (57%) were also more likely to perceive extremism as a problem in their local area than white respondents (45%).
There were no significant differences between those considering extremism to be a problem and no problem at all in their local area for religion.
Further analysis also explored respondents' perceptions of the threat in Scotland in more detail. The only significant difference was by income, with people earning between £20,000 to £39,999 (77%) and £40,000 or more (79%) more likely to identify extremism as a problem in Scotland than those who earn under £20,000 (71%).
After being asked about their perceptions of the level of threat, respondents were presented with an open question which asked them to consider what type of extremism they think poses the biggest threat in Scotland. The word cloud displayed in Figure 6.2 shows the top 10 most common words used by respondents. These included 'racism', 'hate', 'comments', 'media', and 'violence'. This highlights a broad understanding of the term, as discussed in earlier sections.
In addition, despite only a quarter (25%) of respondents having experience of online extremism (see Figure 5.1), the word 'online' was one of the 10 most frequently mentioned, indicating that respondents feel that extremism which takes place online represents a significant issue in Scotland.
Q11. What type of extremism do you think poses the biggest threat in Scotland?
Base: All, n=2,071
The focus groups asked participants to reflect further on whether they considered extremism to be a problem in Scotland, and the extent to which this problem might vary across different regions. In addition, whilst the interviews did not specifically ask about perceptions of the threat, interviewees often discussed this spontaneously.
The findings from the qualitative research supported the survey results. Participants generally saw the threat from extremism – and from violent forms of extremism and from terrorism in particular – to be low in Scotland, and lower than in England. It should be noted that whilst participants were not specifically asked about England, they naturally drew comparisons between England and Scotland when prompted about the rest of the UK, and none drew comparisons between Scotland and Wales or Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Participants made a link between population size and the threat posed by extremism. Scotland's smaller population was cited by several participants as a potential reason for their perception of lower levels of threat in Scotland than in England:
'I wonder if there is any correlation with the population count. So, extremists in my mind are a minority group. They are the extreme leaners in their ideology, and I think there are less of them than the general populace. So, if there are more people there's going to be more extremists. So, if you look at a bigger country with a bigger population you are going to have more extremists. To an extent. I think there's more factors than just that, but I think that is a factor.' (6; FG)
However, no published research was found to evidence a correlation between population size and level of threat from extremism in the Rapid Evidence Review.
Social, cultural and political differences between England and Scotland were also alluded to when discussing the comparative threat level in both countries – albeit whilst still referencing the differences in population count:
'I think in Scotland [the threat is] nowhere near as what it is in England. If you go south of the border there is a lot more of that [extremism] present and a lot more of it available. We are not as bad in Scotland, Scotland are a lot more forgiving and a lot more accepting than in a lot of other places I have ever visited, even in the UK. We are a lot more broader minded and open to ideas and different perspectives in comparison to other areas. We do have those undertones there, but it's not socially acceptable and people shut it down quite quickly in Scotland. I don't know what it is, if it's a greater population south of the border and they've got more people that will listen, I don't know what it is, but there is a clear distinction of that in the UK.' (11; FG)
This point is reflected in the work of Bonino (2016), who suggests that the specific social, political and cultural landscape of Scotland might account for the comparative lack of Islamist extremism in the country when compared with other countries.
Focus group participants were also asked whether they felt that the threat of extremism varied across different parts of Scotland. Again, whilst the interviews did not specifically ask about this, participants often discussed the topic spontaneously.
A consistent theme across both the focus groups and interviews was that the threat from extremism varied across different regions of Scotland. Again, a link was made by participants between population size and threat, with a number of participants suggesting that the threat of extremism was likely to be more prevalent in regions with higher population counts. For example, one participant living in Aberdeenshire stated that:
'I definitely think there's a difference where you have bigger populations like Edinburgh and Glasgow. We seem to be protected up here.' (2; FG)
Participants also commented upon there being different levels of threat of extremism in different parts of Scotland due to their association of extremism with intra-Christian sectarianism. Participants spontaneously referenced this form of sectarianism when asked about regional variations in extremism, noting that the threat posed by this was higher in Glasgow and the West of Scotland. In many instances, this observation was made by participants living outside of these regions:
'I think one of the things about sectarianism is there's obviously a prevalent problem in Glasgow. I don't want to point out Glasgow, but it is Glasgow.' (2; FG)
However, this perception was also held by participants living in the Central Belt, although these participants tended to take a more nuanced view of the issue:
'I would love to say I'm not aware of any extremism in Scotland but certainly here in Glasgow, that issue [sectarianism] is not as problematic, I don't think, as it was when I was growing up, but I think it's still very much there.' (1; FG)
These perceptions are supported by the survey findings discussed in the section covering differences in experience of extremism by population groups (see section 5.3) which highlighted how respondents in Glasgow and the West of Scotland were among the most likely to have observed or experienced extremism.
However, despite these findings wider evidence has suggested that sectarianism is not a purely regional issue. In particular, qualitative research from Goodall et al. (2015) has challenged the assumption of intra-Christian sectarianism being a 'west coast problem', with the authors instead using a 'cobweb' metaphor to conceptualise how sectarianism is experienced across and within different regions of Scotland. As these authors explained:
'We found [sectarianism] throughout Scotland, but it is not all-present in any part, whether the West, the Central Belt or anywhere else. Instead, it runs strongly down generations and across masculine culture particularly, but it is experienced quite differently by different people, depending on their social relationships. This matters more than any simple geographical location.'
6.3 Public perceptions of the prevalence of different forms of extremism
The focus groups and interviews also provided an opportunity to explore participants' perception of the threat posed by different forms of extremism. Participants in the focus groups were specifically asked about this, while in the interviews, participants spontaneously discussed specific forms of extremism that they felt were particularly prevalent.
Across the focus groups and interviews, intra-Christian sectarianism was by far the most commonly discussed issue, with many participants raising this topic without being prompted, often in relation to football-related sectarian abuse. Notably, these discussions tended to focus on broader sectarian attitudes and behaviours that participants did not always specifically call 'extremism'. However, whilst participants recognised that the relationship between sectarianism and extremism was complex, and that they would only define sectarian attitudes and beliefs as extremism in certain circumstances, the fact that sectarianism was often discussed unprompted when asked about extremism was perhaps indicative of participants making a subconscious association between the concepts.
It is important to put these comments into perspective, as there was no indication that participants were concerned about sectarianism leading to large-scale violence or terrorism. However, there was broader concern about how sectarianism might contribute to more specific forms of harm such as hate speech and hate crimes. Furthermore, that sectarianism might contribute to a divided society, which some participants considered to be a serious issue in Scotland currently.
Spontaneous mentions of other forms of extremism were rare. For example, 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.
To further explore this topic, focus group participants were prompted with a list of groups. This list was drawn from the work of Michalski (2019), who examined 8,000 terrorist attacks that took place in the UK and the US between 1970 and 2017 and classified them according to their underlying motivation. The groups he identified included:
- Anarchists or anti-government agitators
- Animal rights or environmentalists
- Leftists or Marxist groups
- Nationalists or separatists
- Racists or hate groups
- Radical Islamist extremists
- Right-wing extremists, religious or otherwise
- Promoters of sectarian violence
This list reflects the ideologies and motivations which underpinned the terror incidents examined by Michalski (2019), but it is important to note that not all groups or individuals who adhere to these ideologies or who hold these beliefs are necessarily extremist in nature. Michalski's (2019) list was used to prompt discussion among participants and is not indicative of the official views of the Scottish Government, or the view of the researchers.
The list was adapted for the purposes of this research, with the addition of 'incels' and small changes to the language used.
When presented with this list, participants commonly reflected that a range of different forms of extremism were likely to be present in Scotland, but that they could not comment on the level of threat posed by individual forms of extremism based on publicly available information. For example, when presented with the list one participant stated that:
'[A]ny one of them could be here in different sizes.' (26; FG)
6.4 Public perceptions of variations over time
Survey respondents were asked whether they felt that that the threat of extremism had increased, stayed the same or decreased over the last five years, and whether they felt that the threat would increase, stay the same, or decrease over the next five years (see Figure 6.3).
Close to half respondents felt that extremism has increased in the last five years (46%) and will increase in the next five years (45%).
Q6. In the last five years, do you think the threat from extremism has changed in Scotland
Q8. In the next five years, do you think the threat from extremism will change in Scotland?
Base: All respondents, n=2071
Over half (59%) of the respondents who believed the threat from extremism in Scotland will increase a lot in the next five years also believed that the threat has increased a lot over the last five years.
Subgroup analysis explored variations in respondents' views on the threat from extremism over the last five years. Female respondents (53%) were more likely to think there had been an increase in the threat of extremism in Scotland in the last five years than male respondents (40%). Respondents aged over 65 years (57%) were also more likely to think extremism had increased than younger age groups (43% of those aged 16-34, 47% of those aged 35-44, 36% of those aged 45-54, and 48% of those aged 55-64).
Those living in the Mid Scotland and Fife (10%), Lothian (13%), West Scotland (10%), and Central Scotland (11%) parliamentary regions were more likely to think the threat level had decreased than respondents from North East Scotland (5%).
White respondents (47%) were more likely to think the threat had increased than BAME respondents (36%), while respondents who identified as belonging to a religion (49%) were more likely to think the threat had increased than respondents who did not identify as belonging to a religion (44%).
Subgroup analysis also explored variations in respondents' views on the threat from extremism in the next five years. Male respondents (33%) were more likely to select that in the next five years the threat from extremism in Scotland will stay the same than female respondents (29%).
Respondents aged over 65 years (19%) were more likely to think the threat level will decrease than those aged 16-34 (12%), those aged 35-44 (5%), those aged 45-54 (9%), and those aged 55-64 (6%). Respondents aged over 65 years (51%) were also more likely to think the threat will increase than those aged 16-34 (43%), aged 35-44 (41%), and aged 45-54 (41%). Therefore, there were stronger opinions from the older age group compared with the younger age groups.
Respondents living in the Highlands and Islands (13%), Mid Scotland and Fife (12%), Lothian (13%), South Scotland (15%), and Central Scotland (12%) parliamentary regions were all more likely to think the threat will decrease than respondents from Glasgow (7%).
Those with a household income between £20,000-£39,999 (48%) were more likely to think the threat will increase than those with a household income below £20,000 (40%).
Finally, respondents who identified as belonging to a religion (48%) were more likely to think the threat will increase in Scotland than those who did not identify as belonging to a religion (42%).
Participants in the focus groups were divided on whether the threat of extremism in Scotland had changed over the past five years, with several potential explanations for these differing opinions emerging from the discussions. These competing perspectives again pointed to differences in how participants conceptualised extremism. Those who felt that extremism had increased tended to focus on extremist attitudes, whilst those who felt that extremism had decreased tended to focus on extremist behaviours, and terrorism in particular.
Participants who felt that extremism had increased often attributed this change to the growth of social media, and its role in spreading extremist sentiment:
'The reason that I would say it would have intensified more recently is with the growth of the internet and social media because these groups may have always existed but it's a lot easier for them to reach a wider audience and it's a lot easier for someone to find a group like that.' (6; FG)
However, one participant felt that the threat from extremism in Scotland remained limited, even though the internet had enabled it to grow:
'I think it is easier to communicate it online so it's easier to find those fringe groups and flourish and then propaganda and the snowball effect. It is a growing concern but still relatively quite small.' (15; FG)
Some participants also held a view that society was becoming more divided, for example:
'I don't have any facts to back it up, but it's just a feeling that people are getting more angry with each other, getting more divided. It seems that we are heading that way, to more... [pause] that I think would lead to more extremism.' (15; FG)
In contrast, participants who felt that the threat of extremism had declined tended to take a longer-term perspective when thinking about the current threat. This was particularly true of older participants who believed that the threat from extremism – and from terrorism in particular – in Scotland had decreased over a longer time period. They specifically mentioned the decline in threat relating to the peace process in Northern Ireland within their lifetimes. For example:
'I would have said there's less extremism now than there was maybe twenty, thirty years ago. Regularly when my wife and family shopped in Edinburgh there would be a bomb scare when they were kids. Not happening now. So less extremist activity.' (1; FG)
Participants in the focus groups and interviews were also asked whether they felt that the pandemic was likely to have had any impact on levels of extremism in the shorter term. Participants were divided on this point. Again, this division tended to reflect differences in how participants conceptualised extremism. Those who felt that extremism had increased tended to focus on the potential for extremist sentiment to have grown during the pandemic:
'I got the feeling during lockdown that extremist attitudes were leaking more into the open. I've not really thought about why that might be, but it seemed to bring out the best and worst in people didn't it?' (4; FG)
'I think it could possibly have an impact because you will get the odd person that maybe wouldn't have ventured out to some of these dark corners of the internet if they weren't trapped in their house with nothing better to do, but I don't [think] that would be enough people for that to have that great of an impact. I haven't personally seen an impact.' (8; I)
In contrast, participants who felt that the threat may have decreased over this period noted how the pandemic had reduced the opportunities for extremist action.
'I think during the pandemic everybody was locked in anyway so there wasn't much of anything happening.' (21; FG)
'You've got to remember that communities were in fact brought together and strengthened as communities, at least around here, during the pandemic. A lot of people helping others totally voluntarily and it was appreciated. I don't think there was very much opportunity for very much extremist activity.' (3; FG)
The issue of extreme positions in relation to the debate around Scottish independence was brought up spontaneously in some of the focus groups and interviews. Participants discussed extremism in connection to divides on the question of the constitutional future of Scotland without making reference to any specific position on independence. The underlying concern was that divisions caused by opposing views would potentially become more extreme. As one participant reflected:
'So yeah, I think if we have another [referendum], I'm not saying we shouldn't have another one, but if we have another one, there is danger that extremist views and actions could start to surface.' (4; FG)
However, it is important to note that there was no suggestion that participants were concerned about large-scale acts of violence, and that research has highlighted how Scottish nationalism has, aside from a handful of nuisance attacks and hoax threats being attributed to militant nationalist groups, been overwhelmingly non-violent (Brooke, 2018).
Further, while it is important to recognise that many participants were concerned about views regarding Scottish independence as having the potential to become more intense and extreme, it is also important to contextualise the concerns raised, noting particularly that in June 2022, during the research fieldwork period, the then First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a proposed second referendum on Scottish independence. The topic of independence may therefore have been at the forefront of many participants' minds during their participation in this research.
More broadly, it is important to contextualise concerns about a future increase in levels of extremism by restating that the current threat of extremism in Scotland was generally perceived to be low. As a result, concerns about a future increase did not point to a concern that extremism would become widespread:
'I think different forms could manifest in different communities. But I do agree that for the most part I don't think extremism is a particularly large problem in Scotland or UK-wide. I just think it has the potential to become a problem.' (15; FG)
To what extent do the public perceive extremism to be a threat or problem in Scotland?
Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents considered extremism to be a problem in Scotland (either minor, moderate or big), though fewer than one in ten (9%) considered it to be a big problem. Higher proportions regarded extremism as a problem in the rest of the UK (82%) and worldwide (87%).
This was reflected in the qualitative discussions. Focus group and interview participants generally saw the threat from extremism in Scotland to be low, and lower than in England.
Respondents' concerns about extremism in their local area were also relatively low compared with wider geographical areas. Less than half (46%) of survey respondents considered extremism as a problem, and only 5% as a big problem in their local area. BAME respondents (57%) were more likely to perceive extremism as a problem in their local area than white respondents (45%), while people in Glasgow were more likely to identify extremism as a problem in their local area (58%) than those in other parliamentary regions.
Have public perceptions of extremism as a threat or problem in Scotland changed over time?
Close to half of the survey respondents (46%) believed that the threat of extremism had risen over the last five years in Scotland, while around one in ten (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. This was particularly true of older participants who believed that the threat from terrorism had decreased over a longer time period. For example, they mentioned the decline in threat relating to the peace process in Northern Ireland within their lifetimes.
Do the public think extremism is increasing, decreasing or is stable in Scotland?
Survey respondents were divided over how the extremist threat might change over time. Around a third felt the threat from extremism would stay the same (31%), under half (45%) that the threat will rise, and around one in ten (11%) thought that that the threat would decrease in the next five years. 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.
What are the public's views on the types of extremism that are of most concern or growing concern currently, and why?
In the survey, an open question asking about what form of extremism posed the biggest threat in Scotland generated a range of responses. The most commonly-mentioned terms were 'hate', 'racism' and 'online', indicating a broad understanding of extremism, as demonstrated in previous sections.
In the qualitative research, participants displayed concern about intra-Christian sectarianism, which was regarded as most prevalent in the Central Belt. There was also discussion of racism as a problem in Scotland, again suggesting a broad interpretation of the term extremism.
Notably, 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.
What are views on the key drivers of these concerns?
Participants in the focus groups and interviews 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 populated areas of Scotland were seen as experiencing higher threat than less populated areas.
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