Understanding extremism in Scotland: public perceptions and experiences

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

7. Public opinions on efforts to tackle extremism in Scotland

7.1 Introduction

This section presents findings relating to the public's awareness and perceptions of organisations working to tackle extremism in Scotland. The specific research question explored was:

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

In the survey, respondents were asked for their views on whether enough is being done to tackle extremism in Scotland by a range of organisations. This was also covered in the interviews, to allow participants to explain their answers in more detail. In addition, the interviews also asked participants about their awareness and perceptions of Prevent in Scotland. The Prevent duty was officially introduced in July 2015 as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015), and applies in Scotland with specific guidance (Home Office, 2021a). The duty places a statutory obligation on a range of sectors (including health, prisons, the police, education, and local authorities) to pay 'due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'.

The introduction of the Prevent duty led to a rapid increase in studies exploring its impact in England – particularly in the context of the education sector (see for example Jerome, Elwick & Kazim, 2019). Yet, a key evidence gap relates to views on, and the impact of, the Prevent duty in Scotland, with only a handful of studies specifically examining Prevent in Scotland. For example, a research project from Birmingham City University included Scottish institutions when interviewing university staff about the impact of the Prevent duty (Spiller, Awan & Whiting, 2018), and when examining university Prevent policies (Whiting et al., 2021), while in another study examined the assumptions underpinning the UK government's Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) training sessions having attended one such session in Edinburgh (Blackwood, Hopkins and Reicher, 2016). Another notable study focused on Scotland is Morris and Meloy's (2020) analysis of the case records of 23 individuals who were the subject of Prevent referrals in Fife. Research is also currently being carried out to examine the delivery of the Prevent duty in the Highlands and Islands (Brooke, forthcoming).

However, whilst existing studies provide some (limited) evidence of institutional compliance with the Prevent duty, it is not yet possible to draw robust conclusions about the impact and perceptions of Prevent in Scotland from this work.

The interviews therefore included high-level questioning to explore the public's awareness of, and views on the Prevent duty in Scotland, as well as their views on what warrants a referral to Prevent.

7.2 Public views of organisations tackling extremism

Survey results

The survey asked respondents their views on whether enough is being done to tackle extremism in Scotland by a range of organisations, including local authorities, educational institutions, Scottish Government, UK Government, Police Scotland and MI5.

Figure 7.1: Perceptions of action taken by various organisations to tackle extremism in Scotland
A stacked bar chart showing agreement or disagreement that the following six institutions are doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland: Local authorities, educational institutions, Scottish Government, UK Government, Police Scotland, and MI5. The results are discussed in the main body of the text.

Q9. To what extent do you agree or disagree that enough is being done to tackle extremism in Scotland?

Base: All respondents, n=2071

As shown in Figure 7.1, responses of 'don't know' were high. In particular, almost half of respondents selected this answer option for MI5 (47%), while almost a quarter (23%) selected this for educational institutions. Less than a fifth selected 'don't know' for Police Scotland (18%) and the Scottish Government (15%). As will be discussed further in the next section, qualitative participants often pointed out that they were giving their impressions of how well organisations in Scotland are tackling extremism with very limited knowledge of what organisations are doing in this regard.

For those with an opinion, roughly half were positive and roughly half were negative towards each organisation.

Out of the organisations listed, Police Scotland gained the highest proportion of positive responses. Over two fifths (43%) agreed that Police Scotland were doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland.

Further analysis explored views on whether enough is being done by the Scottish Government to tackle extremism in more detail. Males appeared slightly more favourable towards the efforts of the Scottish Government than females, with 42% of males agreeing that the Scottish Government are doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland compared with 37% of females.

BAME respondents were also more favourable towards the Scottish Government than white respondents, with 49% of BAME respondents agreeing the Scottish Government are doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland compared with 39% of white respondents.

Meanwhile, the oldest age group was less favourable towards the Scottish Government than younger groups, with respondents aged over 65 years more likely to disagree that enough is being done to tackle extremism by the Scottish Government in Scotland compared with all other age groups (52% compared with 44% of those aged 16-34, 44% of those aged 35-44, 41% of those aged 45-54, and 46% of those aged 55-64).

Looking at differences between groups for the statement regarding local authorities, males (39%) were more likely to think enough is being done to tackle extremism by local authorities than females (33%).

Those aged over 65 years (42%) were also more likely to agree local authorities are doing enough to tackle extremism than those aged 35-64 (33% of 35-44 year olds, 30% of 45-54 year olds and 33% of 55-64 year olds).

Respondents living in the South Scotland parliamentary region (42%) were more likely than both respondents living in the Highlands and Islands (29%) and Glasgow (32%) to agree that enough is being done to tackle extremism by local authorities in Scotland.

Qualitative findings

In the qualitative research, participants expressed that the public may be unaware of what is being done to tackle extremism by different organisations.

'You dunna really read or hear about how they're [UK Government] tackling [extremism], but I am sure behind the scenes there will be intelligence resources keeping an eye on a number of individuals or groups… Well again, what you hear and what you see, they [Police Scotland] seem to be reacting [as] if there was extremism. But you don't know what is happening behind the scenes.' (2; I)

Another participant discussed how their attitude towards whether organisations were doing enough to tackle extremism related to their awareness of extremism in general, including terrorist attacks:

'I don't see any [terrorist attacks], so I would say they are doing well.' (18; I)

The lack of public awareness of counter-extremism efforts undertaken by different organisations made it difficult for them to objectively reflect on what was being done and how effectively they were being undertaken. This finding suggests that a more effective strategy of communicating to the public what is being done by various agencies would allow for a greater public understanding of existing counter-extremism efforts.

7.3 Public awareness of Prevent

Qualitative findings

At the end of each interview a series of questions were asked to gauge awareness of, and views on, Prevent in Scotland. Interview participants were largely unaware of Prevent, with none able to describe it. Therefore, all were presented with a summary of Prevent and asked for their initial reactions. A common response was that this made sense in principle:

'That seems like a perfectly sensible idea, see something, say something, I think that is absolutely a good idea.' (8; I)

Therefore, even though awareness was low, impressions were largely favourable when the purpose of Prevent was explained.

After largely expressing positive reactions, participants considered why they, or others, had not heard of Prevent in Scotland. For example:

'This Prevent, I've certainly never heard of that before. That's an issue I'm sure there's not a lot of people in Scotland that would know about Prevent. And I view that as an issue full stop.' (2; I)

For those not employed in a role with Prevent duty responsibilities, knowledge of the Prevent duty would not necessarily be expected. However, the lack of awareness among participants further illustrates the limited popular understanding of existing counter-extremism measures.

7.4 Public views on Prevent

Qualitative findings

After being provided with an explanation of the Prevent duty, interview participants were prompted to consider the types of behaviours they felt people would have to display to warrant a potential Prevent referral. Many participants were unsure how they would identify this, or what their threshold would be. One explained:

'I don't know how you would notice things like that. […] thinking if it was someone I knew like hiding their laptop or their phone, not wanting people to see what they're doing. Becoming very into themselves like radicalised. If someone's grooming them and making them think differently you would think you would see a change in their personality as well.' (24; I)

Other participants were particularly conscious of people being reported because of misplaced concerns, or adverse attitudes to people with protected characteristics:

'How many people would be reported purely because of how they look or their accent? And that's where I think the drawback of that sort of system would come but then I don't know how else you would avoid that in this situation.' (8; I)

This point relates to the work of scholars such as Bonino (2015a) who carried out interviews with Muslims living in Edinburgh, and found that most participants 'had either themselves experienced or had relatives and/or friends who were subjected to perceived undue targeting or harsh treatment when leaving from or arriving at a Scottish airport'. Concerns about, and experiences of, anti-Muslim sentiment were widespread in Bonino's research, though there was some evidence to suggest that participants perceived Scotland, and particularly Edinburgh, as being more tolerant than England (Bonino, 2015a).

Interview participants presented a range of potential options that they would consider if they were concerned about the behaviour of someone they knew. Some participants spoke about conducting a personal intervention, although this was often in the context of knowing the person well. One participant articulated:

'If it was someone that was close to me, I would think that I could help them. I would try understand. If I thought they were a danger I would possibly, but then that would be extreme because what is going to happen to that person? What have they done? But if I thought I couldn't help them then I would yeah.' (24; I)

A key point here is that this (and other) participants saw informal intervention by friends and family as a preliminary step in the counter-extremism process in some circumstances. That is, whilst they would be willing to refer an individual to Prevent if they felt it was needed, they discussed how friends or family members might first attempt to engage with and help individuals themselves prior to deciding to refer them to Prevent. Similar findings have been reported in research in England. For example, Thomas et al. (2017) found that community members concerned about the potential radicalisation of somebody close to them were likely to go through a 'staged' process. This consisted of first trying to intervene themselves or through other friends, family or members of their communities, before reporting their concerns to the authorities.

Others wanted more information about what a Prevent referral would accomplish before they would consider undertaking one. Some participants were therefore cautious about making a referral without knowing more about what this process would involve and what the implications might be for the individual being referred. Both these concerns were raised in the research by Thomas et al. (2017) discussed above. For example:

'Yeah, I think it would be difficult, it would depend on the situation. It would be different if you had suspicions about a neighbour, like I say, but if it was maybe a close relative or a close friend it would definitely depend on what the situation was like. Because I can't remember the wording, but it says, "refer to them" or something like that, but is it going to feel like I'm reporting someone or grassing them, that might not be the best way forward.' (8; I)

Another participant explained that before reporting anyone:

'I'd need more information to understand what meets the criteria, to see what meets it.' (10; I)

Both comments speak to a concern about what form the referral process could take and whether it was in that person's best interests. Wider research has shown that social and cultural concerns about policing may also act as a restraint on approaching official counter-extremism channels (Awan & Guru, 2017; Cherney & Murphy, 2017).

Participants also talked through scenarios where they would make a referral to Prevent, make a referral after trying something else, or not make a referral. Their hypothetical intention depended on a number of considerations, including: how – and how well – they knew the person involved; and the extent to which they felt there was a possibility that the individual's extremist views might develop into extremist actions. Participants also discussed a desire to familiarise themselves with the criteria and process for making a Prevent referral before doing so.

Finally, participants were asked how they would find out more about the Prevent duty or the referral process. Participants offered a variety of answers, including that they would search for information online, contact the police or local authority, or speak to a superior if it occurred in a professional setting. Participants' instinct was not to seek information on official websites, but rather via a search engine, which may not necessarily prioritise official guidance. This would suggest that more can be done to raise public awareness of legitimate sources of information on Prevent, even for those who do not hold Prevent duty responsibilities.

7.5 Conclusion

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

Participants were conscious of their lack of awareness of the work being done by a range of organisations to tackle extremism in Scotland. As a result, participants were reticent to say whether they thought organisations were doing enough to tackle extremism in Scotland. This was reflected in the survey results, where responses of 'don't know' were high.

Awareness of Prevent was very low within the small sample of qualitative participants. All the same, they expressed general support for Prevent in theory, and a desire for more awareness of how it worked in practice. This included, for example, information on the criteria used to assess radicalisation risk, and the different referral mechanisms.

Participants considered intervention by family members or friends as a potential preliminary step in the counter-extremism process. That is, whilst they would be willing to refer an individual to Prevent if they felt this was needed, they discussed how friends or families might first attempt to engage with and help individuals themselves prior to deciding to refer them to Prevent.

When asked about potentially making a referral themselves, participants said that any potential referral would depend on how well they knew the person and how large a threat they perceived that person to pose, including whether they were likely to act on their views in a way that would cause harm.

They also reflected upon how conscious and unconscious bias within society could lead to individuals being misidentified as showing signs of radicalisation, and in turn wrongly referred to Prevent. Participants therefore showed an awareness of how mechanisms to counter extremism might produce negative and unintended consequences.


Email: SVT@gov.scot

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