Understanding extremism in Scotland: public perceptions and experiences

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

8. Key findings and considerations

This section summarises the key findings from across the research, and is organised by the research themes: public understandings of extremism; views on existing definitions of extremism; experiences of extremism; views on the threat of extremism; and opinions on tackling extremism. Key demographic differences and suggestions for further research are also presented.

8.1 Public understandings of extremism

Key findings

Public understandings of extremism were subjective, nuanced and context- dependent.

In the survey, nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents were at least 'fairly confident' that they understood what the term extremism meant. However, in-depth discussion during the qualitative research suggested that members of the public are not necessarily either confident or fixed in their understandings of the term.

For example, participants' opinions on whether and how views and actions constitute extremism were highly subject to context. Participants usually desired more information about the views and actions, such as the time and place they occurred, their underlying motivation and their impact, in order to determine whether they were extremist.

Causing harm to others was widely held as an important threshold for when an action could be considered as '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. The qualitative research found some had a specific interpretation of harm as involving physical violence, while others considered wider forms of harm to constitute extremism, such as inciting or encouraging violence, and unplanned protests if these caused harm to members or the public through disruption and delay.

Participants saw significant overlap, but subtle differences, between the terms 'extremism' and the terms 'terrorism', 'sectarianism' and 'hate crime'.


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 of extremism 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.

While the Scottish Government does not currently have an official definition of extremism, a notable finding from this research was that among many participants, causing harm to others, physical or otherwise, was viewed as a clear threshold for extremist behaviour. This suggests that a definition that references causing harm – including, but not restricted to violence – may be understood and accepted by the public. The Scottish Government may wish to take this into consideration if developing a definition in future.

The Scottish Government may also wish to present any future definition of extremism alongside definitions of associated terms, including terrorism and hate crime, so that distinctions between these concepts are clear.

A further notable finding was that levels of confidence in understanding of extremism differed between demographic groups. For example, young people were less confident than older people in their understanding. Therefore, messaging about extremism should be tailored to groups with different levels of confidence in their understanding. Groups with lower levels of confidence may welcome entry-level messaging to increase their knowledge on extremism. Groups with higher levels of confidence may need more expansive messaging to counter any potentially misplaced confidence.

Finally, while on the one hand participants were supportive of mitigation of the harm caused by extremism, on the other hand, they were conscious of the balance that policymaking must achieve so as not to stifle debate and democratic protest. The public are therefore likely to understand the challenges bodies attempting to tackle extremism face in determining whether an action or view constitutes extremism or could pose harm to the public.

Furthermore, they were mindful of UK or Scottish Government policies resulting in unintended negative impacts on groups within the population, an aspect which can be mitigated though Equality Impact Assessments.[9]

8.2 Public views on existing definitions of extremism

Key findings

Of the definitions 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 (2011) definition of extremism, 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 mention of a specific country or culture. Participants who raised this issue seemed to be concerned with ensuring any official definition of extremism used in Scotland would be widely applicable and, potentially, widely accepted.

Some members of the public struggled with the accessibility of the definitions of extremism presented and indicated a desire for a clear definition expressed in plain English.

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


It appears that the public may prefer a definition of extremism which makes explicit reference to violence, such as the Australian definition. Referencing values which are attributed to any political or geographical area should be avoided. Any definition of extremism should be as clear as possible, and expressed in plain English.

While splitting extremism into different forms of motivation (e.g., religiously-motivated, politically-motivated and ideologically-motivated) could be useful in enabling the public to differentiate between different forms of extremism, the qualitative research highlighted the difficulties with creating exclusionary categories, and indicated that delineating these could be challenging. Ideology was understood as a system of beliefs, including political or religious beliefs. Therefore, if it is deemed important for a definition to include a reference to motivations, the term 'ideologically-motivated' may be sufficient.

8.3 Public experiences of extremism

Key findings

A third (33%) of survey respondents considered themselves to have experienced or observed extremism in Scotland in the past five years. Higher proportions had experienced discrimination (53%) and racism (50%) in this period.

The qualitative research suggested that participants were including a wide range of experiences when reporting experiences of extremism, including of intra-Christian sectarianism, violence and abuse, and observing extremist views being shared.

Despite the lack of terrorist activity in Scotland in the last five years, 15% reported having observed or witnessed terrorism in Scotland over this period. Possible explanations for this are that participants interpreted this question broadly, and included events that had taken place outside of Scotland or longer than five years ago in their answers.

Indeed, when qualitative participants discussed examples of terrorism they had observed, in all cases they clarified either that these did not take place in Scotland or in the past five years, indicating that the survey respondents may also have included wider events in their observations.

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 also had higher instances of experiencing or observing discrimination, violence or hate crime.


While a significant minority of respondents reported having observed 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.

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. Otherwise, members of the public naturally think of concepts they associate with the word 'extremism' such as racism.

8.4 Public views on the threat of extremism

Key findings

Less than one in ten survey respondents stated that extremism was a big problem in Scotland (9%). Higher proportions of respondents felt that extremism was a big problem in the rest of the UK (24%) and worldwide (49%).

As the geographical area under consideration expanded, people regarded the threat from extremism as higher. While nearly three quarters (74%) of survey respondents considered extremism to be a problem in Scotland (either minor, moderate or big), less than half (46%) considered extremism to be a problem in their local area, including only 5% who felt it was 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 regions. BAME respondents were also more likely to perceive extremism as a problem in their local area than white respondents (57% compared with 45%).

In qualitative discussions, participants often made an association between population size and the threat from 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.

Close to half of respondents (46%) believed the threat of extremism had risen over the last five years in Scotland, while 9% felt that it had decreased, and around a third (32%) were unsure. 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 the case for older participants, who mentioned the decline in threat relating to the peace process in Northern Ireland within their lifetimes.

Almost half (45%) of survey respondents thought that the threat from extremism would increase in the next five years, while around a third (31%) felt it would stay the same and less than one in ten (9%) felt it would 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 which forms of extremism participants felt pose the biggest threat in Scotland, participants displayed concern about intra-Christian sectarianism, which was viewed as closely linked to extremism, and 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.


In the qualitative discussions, an association was drawn between population size and the threat of extremism. 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.

Survey respondents associated the term 'online' with extremism. Qualitative participants did not tend to share their views on online extremism without prompting because although they were aware that extremism might be fostered through online communications, they did not have any direct experience of this. The exception was some discussion of social media content expressing views they considered to be extremism or showing actions they considered to be extremism. The research indicates that the public would be supportive of work to minimise sharing of extremist views online, and of counter-extremism work focusing on online activity. However, they may have limited understanding of the threat of online extremism or the counter-measures in place to tackle online extremism at present.

8.5 Public opinions on tackling extremism

Key findings

Survey responses to a question asking about the efforts of different organisations attempting to tackle extremism in Scotland were mixed, with approximately equal proportions of respondents expressing a positive or a negative opinion. High proportions of respondents answered 'don't know', indicating that many respondents had limited awareness of what was being done by the different organisations.

In the qualitative discussions, participants 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 was very low within the small sample of qualitative participants. Nevertheless, they expressed general support for Prevent in theory, and a desire for more awareness of how Prevent works in practice.

Intervention by existing social contacts was viewed as an important preliminary step in the counter-extremism process, and something that participants felt might be important prior to any formal referral taking place. 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.

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


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.

8.6 Key demographic differences

A summary of the key statistical results from the survey combined with observations from the qualitative research is provided in Appendix E. Some key differences not already covered in this section are summarised below:


  • Males were more confident in their understanding of the term 'extremism' than females.
  • Females displayed higher levels of uncertainty in their answers to the survey questions, and in qualitative discussions, desired more context to assess whether they thought particular behaviours or views could be considered extremist.
  • Males were more likely to associate sectarianism and politics with extremism than females, while females were more likely to associate homophobia with extremism than males.
  • Females were more likely to think extremism was a problem in their local area, and that levels of extremism in Scotland had increased in the last five years, than males.
  • Males appeared more favourable towards the efforts of the Scottish Government to tackle extremism than females.


  • The youngest age group (aged 16-34) were more likely not to feel confident in their understanding of the term 'extremism' than other age groups.
  • Respondents aged over 65 were less likely than younger people to categorise given actions as extremist, meaning they appear to have a higher threshold for considering an action as extremist than younger age groups.
  • Respondents aged over 65 were more likely to think there had been an increase in extremism in Scotland in the last five years than younger age groups, but they were also more likely to think extremism will decrease in the next five years than younger age groups.
  • Respondents aged over 65 were less favourable towards the efforts of the Scottish Government to tackle extremism than younger groups.


  • People in Glasgow parliamentary region were more likely to identify extremism as a problem in their local area than any other parliamentary region.
  • In qualitative discussions, participants felt that more populated, urban areas were more threatened by extremism than more remote, less populous areas.
  • Participants displayed concern about intra-Christian sectarianism, and saw this as more prevalent in the Central Belt than other parts of Scotland.


  • BAME respondents were more likely to associate extremism with racism than white respondents.
  • BAME respondents were more likely to perceive extremism as a problem in their local area than white respondents.
  • BAME respondents were more favourable towards the Scottish Government's efforts to tackle extremism than white respondents.
  • White respondents were more likely to think the threat of extremism in Scotland had increased in the last five years than BAME respondents.


  • Respondents who identified as belonging to a religion were more likely to think the threat from extremism had increased in the last five years in Scotland than respondents who did not identify as belonging to a religion.
  • Respondents who identified as belonging to a religion were more likely to think the threat of extremism will increase in Scotland in the next five years than those who did not identify as belonging to a religion.

8.7 Further research

This mixed-method research study involved over 2,000 residents of Scotland, helping to address a significant evidence gap regarding public perceptions and experiences of extremism. There were differences in the understandings, views and experiences of different demographic groups. This report has not commented on reasons for these differences, except when secondary sources of evidence were available towards explaining results. It was also not appropriate to draw strong conclusions from the relatively small number of 26 qualitative research participants.

Given the differences in opinion across demographic groups highlighted in this report, research with sufficient sub-samples of participants could explore what leads to differences in opinion across groups in more detail. In particular, research with young people, exploring how attitudes to extremism are formed, could be of particular value in this area. Young people may also be more exposed to the coverage of extremism views or actions on social media than older age groups. In this study the youngest age group was 16-34. However, research with school-aged children could bring in different experiences and would help future-proof policy making. Research with people living in different areas of Scotland would also be valuable, given the differences found between parliamentary regions in the analysis of survey results.

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. It may also be worthwhile to develop longitudinal research on this topic, for example, to track public views on the threat of extremism, and the extent to which the public have experienced extremism or related phenomena such as sectarianism or hate crime.

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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