Understanding extremism in Scotland: stakeholder perceptions and views

Findings from research exploring stakeholder understandings of and perspectives on extremism and Prevent delivery in Scotland.

Executive summary


This report presents findings from qualitative research conducted by Scottish Government researchers to explore stakeholder understandings of and perspectives on extremism and Prevent delivery in Scotland.

Prevent is a strand of the UK Government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST (Home Office, 2018). The stakeholders who participated in this research included predominantly senior-level representatives of organisations that have direct involvement in Prevent in Scotland, or significant interest in Prevent or extremism in Scotland more generally. The research took place between April 2022 and January 2023, with fieldwork carried out between May and September 2022.

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


The research adopted a qualitative approach. The researchers conducted a total of 29 interviews, four of which were paired interviews (meaning that two participants were interviewed at the same time), making the total number of participants 33.

Participants represented a range of sectors, including the police (8), faith and belief organisations (7), local authorities (4), education (4), health (1), government (1), prisons (1) and other private/third sector organisations (3).

The organisations invited to take part were identified from existing Scottish Government contact lists and networks. It is important to note, therefore, that while the selection of participants was designed to elicit a range of perspectives from representatives of organisations involved in Prevent, or interested in Prevent or extremism in Scotland more generally, the findings should not be taken to represent the views of representatives of all organisations that have involvement or interest in Prevent or extremism in Scotland, nor the views of the entire sector in which they operate.

Key findings

Understanding of extremism

Participants had difficulty defining extremism, and held diverse understandings of the concept. A particular contention which arose between participants related to whether holding extremist beliefs can in and of itself be considered extremism, or whether these beliefs have to be acted upon to be considered extremism. There were also mixed opinions as to whether extremism necessarily involves violence.

There was some support for an approach to defining extremism which involves the use of the categories ‘politically-motivated’, ‘ideologically-motivated’ and ‘religiously-motivated’, though it was felt that a caveat that the categories are not mutually exclusive would be needed if they were to be operationalised within Prevent.

Participants were largely in agreement that there are strong links between extremism, hate crime and terrorism, with the idea of a spectrum of views discussed. However, views differed regarding whether sectarianism forms part of this spectrum, with some feeling that it is less harmful than typical manifestations of extremism.

Views on extremism in Scotland

Participants felt that while extremism exists in Scotland, it is less of a problem in Scotland than it is in England. Despite this, many participants felt that the prevalence of extremism is increasing in Scotland, and that Scotland should not be viewed as immune from extremist ideologies and groups.

There was also a perception that the spread of extremist ideologies is different in Scotland to other parts of the UK, with right-wing and sectarian forms of extremism viewed as the most prevalent, and Islamist extremism viewed as less of a problem than in other areas of Britain.

Participants discussed various factors they felt may make people vulnerable to being drawn into extremism, such as isolation and loneliness, spending time online, family background, lack of opportunities and demographic characteristics.

A key theme that emerged during discussions about extremism in Scotland was participants’ reflections that more information is needed regarding the extent of extremism in Scotland, trends over time, and the ideologies that are more and less prevalent. There was a desire for further research to be carried out on this topic in Scotland.

Views on Prevent in Scotland

Difficulties with determining the effectiveness of Prevent in Scotland were discussed, but a range of factors that are perceived to work well were highlighted, including the alignment of Prevent with safeguarding policies; the Prevent Multi-Agency Panel (PMAP) guidance; existing tools and resources; and involvement of a range of sectors in the delivery of Prevent.

Concerns with Prevent were also raised, with some relating to the policy more broadly rather than its delivery in Scotland. The concerns that were raised around its delivery in Scotland related to information-sharing; the availability of resources and funding; the provision of training; and the lack of work to ‘tackle the causes’ of extremism.

Suggestions for improvement included raising awareness of the positioning of Prevent as a policy that supports community cohesion and integration Scotland; increasing transparency around how the policy is delivered; carrying out greater community engagement work; and improving training and information flows. Participants also expressed support for more research to determine the impact and effectiveness of Prevent in Scotland.

Ability of sectors to identify and support those vulnerable to being drawn into extremism

Those representing sectors with a statutory obligation to fulfil the Prevent duty had mixed views on the ability of those working within these sectors to identify and support individuals who may be vulnerable to being drawn into extremism. While many felt that practitioners are well-placed to identify and support vulnerable individuals, concerns such as the need for more resources, funding and training were raised.

Implications and considerations

Suggestions for further research

This work highlights the need for further research in two key areas. Firstly, participants highlighted a lack of concrete data and evidence about the prevalence of and trends in extremism in Scotland. This suggests that research exploring extremist activity taking place in Scotland in greater detail would be beneficial. This might include work to explore the influence and reach of particular extremist groups in Scotland in comparison with the rest of the UK, and more detailed examination of the data on referrals to Prevent in Scotland in comparison with England and Wales.

Secondly, participants felt that at present it is difficult to determine the extent to which Prevent is meeting the objectives outlined in CONTEST. This suggests that it may be helpful to explore the impact and effectiveness of Prevent in Scotland in more depth. This could be approached through independent in-depth case study or ethnographic research with people who have been through Prevent in Scotland, which would support a more in-depth, multifaceted understanding of what works to address the needs of those at risk.

More broadly, further exploration of the Prevent referral data may also provide an indication of the frequency with which those who are offered Prevent support are referred back to Prevent in future, and potential reasons for this.

Broader considerations

Stakeholders who took part in this research had wide-ranging understandings of extremism. While this was to some extent surprising, it may reflect the fact that the Scottish Government does not currently have an official definition of extremism, having not adopted the UK Government definition (Home Office, 2011).

It therefore appears that it would be useful to give consideration to the merits of having an official definition of extremism for use in Scotland, or at least to set out the views, behaviours and activities that are considered to constitute extremism in the context of Prevent more clearly, to ensure there is a shared understanding of what is meant by the term among those responsible for tackling it.

In addition, this research highlights a need for more training and resources around the different types of extremism that exist, and the behaviours and signs that could indicate vulnerability to extremist narratives, to support those working to deliver Prevent in Scotland to identify those at risk of radicalisation more effectively.

Finally, this research has also highlighted a range of suggestions for ways in which Prevent delivery in Scotland could be enhanced. Although the UK Government retains overall responsibility for national policy on security and counter-terrorism, the suggestions largely relate to improving existing processes, perceptions and understanding of Prevent, rather than the underlying principles of the programme or the mechanisms through which it is delivered in Scotland. The research recommends that the Scottish Government and statutory partners give consideration to both whether and how these suggestions could be taken forward to foster improvements in Prevent delivery in Scotland.


Email: SVT@gov.scot

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