Today sees the publication by the Scottish Government of a Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) report on how attitudes in Scotland towards the devolved and UK-wide institutions have evolved since the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999. Throughout the last twenty years SSA has regularly tracked attitudes towards how Scotland is and should be governed, thereby providing a unique body of evidence on how the public have reacted to the experience of devolution. Today’s report updates that record by unveiling the results of the most recent survey conducted at the end of last year and early this year.
What do the results from the latest survey tell us, and how have opinions changed over the past twenty years?
Two questions on trust in government have regularly been asked of respondents, namely whether (i) they trust the UK and Scottish governments to act in Scotland’s long-term interests and (ii) whether they trust them to make fair decisions. In both cases, trust in the Scottish Government is higher than trust in the UK Government.
In the latest survey, just over six in ten (61%) said they trust the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’, compared with only 15% who trust the UK Government that much. A similar picture emerges for the question on fair decisions, with 11% of people in Scotland trusting the UK Government to make fair decisions ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ compared with 37% for the Scottish Government. Over half of people in Scotland (51%) trust the UK Government to make fair decisions either ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’.
A greater level of trust in the Scottish Government compared with the UK Government is not unique to this year’s survey, but rather has been a consistent finding over the past twenty years. The difference has, of course, fluctuated over time. In particular, there is some evidence that trust in the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests has tended to peak in Scottish Parliament election years (e.g. 2003, 2007 and 2011). However while, as shown in Table 1, trust in the Scottish Government to make fair decisions has fluctuated up and down – between a low of 32% when the question was first asked in 2006 and a peak of 49% in 2015 – the proportion who trust the UK Government to make fair decisions ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ has fallen over time and, at 11% is now at an all-time low.
As well as the questions on trust in the two Governments, SSA has consistently asked people in Scotland which body they think has the most influence over how Scotland is run, and which body ought to do so. In the latest survey a similar proportion say that the Scottish Government has the most influence (40%) as say the UK Government does (42%). However, the proportion who think the Scottish Government ought to have the most influence over the way Scotland is run (73%) is much higher than the proportion who think the UK Government should do so (15%).
Since it was first asked in 1999, responses to the question on which government ought to have the most influence have remained fairly stable. Roughly, between two-thirds and three-quarters have thought over the past 20 years that the Scottish Government ought to have the most influence, while between 10% and 20% have thought the UK Government ought to do so.
However, the figures for which government has the most influence have changed significantly. In the early 2000s the UK Government was most likely to be thought to have more influence, with roughly two-thirds of the population saying they did, compared with around a fifth who thought the Scottish Government did so. From 2004 onwards these proportions converged, until in 2011 (the year an SNP majority was elected in Holyrood) the proportion who thought the UK Government had the most influence was the same as the proportion who thought the Scottish Government did. However, since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 perceptions on which government has the most influence have remained relatively stable.
Despite differences in levels of trust in the Scottish and UK Governments, and in opinions on which body ought to have the most influence, the proportions of people who think it important to vote in elections to the two Parliaments are similar. Just under nine in ten (89%) think it is either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important to vote in UK Parliament general elections, while 94% think it important to vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament.
As shown in Table 2, the importance attached by people to voting in both kinds of elections has increased over the years, though the increase has been slightly more marked for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Between 2005 and when the questions were reintroduced onto the survey in 2016, the proportion thinking it important to vote in Scottish Parliament elections increased by 15 percentage points from 76% to 91%, while the equivalent increase for UK Parliament elections was five percentage points from 79% to 84%.
The results from SSA are therefore pretty clear – although people in Scotland consider it important to vote in elections to both Parliaments there is no doubt there is both a higher level of trust in the devolved institutions, and a feeling that they ought to have the most influence over the way Scotland is run.
With the possibility of another ‘election bounce’ in levels of trust in the Scottish Government in 2021, and with the Scottish Government considered to be performing better than Westminster in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it could be that these more positive findings for the devolved institutions will continue into the near future.
Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: Attitudes to Government, the Economy and the Health Service, and Political Engagement in Scotland by Susan Reid, Ian Montagu and Alex Scholes is published by the Scottish Government here.