The latest Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) report on attitudes to government is published today. Given the ongoing coronavirus restrictions in place when the 2021/22 survey was conducted (October 2021 to March 2022), it could not be conducted as previously by face-to-face interviews in participants’ homes. Instead all interviews were conducted over the telephone. This difference in the way the survey was conducted, and its effect on who took part, makes comparison with the results of previous editions of the survey more difficult than it usually would have been. Nevertheless, the 2021/22 survey still reveals some important facts about the nature of contemporary public opinion in Scotland.
One pattern that has been evident ever since the advent of devolution in Scotland twenty years ago is the so-called ‘halo effect’. That is, if the standard of public services or economic circumstances are thought to be improving, the Scottish Government tends to get the credit. In contrast, if the standard of public services are reckoned to have got worse or the standard of living fallen, then it is the UK Government at Westminster that gets the blame.
The results from this year’s SSA survey show that, more than twenty years on from the creation of the Scottish Parliament, this pattern is still clearly in evidence.
The latest SSA asked its respondents whether over the past year they thought that standards in the health service had increased or fallen, whether Scotland’s economy had got stronger or weaker, and whether the standard of living in Scotland had increased or fallen. Given the survey fieldwork took place during a pandemic that had significant economic implications, it is perhaps unsurprising that people’s responses to these questions were generally negative.
Two-thirds (66%) of Scots felt that the standard of the health service had fallen in the past year, while only 6% thought it had improved. Similar proportions thought that Scotland’s standard of living had fallen (63%), and that the economy had weakened (66%), while only 7% thought the Scottish economy had grown stronger and 8% thought the standard of living had increased.
As well as asking about whether things had improved or got worse in the past year in the health service and across the economy, respondents were also asked who they thought was responsible for that change. They were presented with three options: ‘mainly the result of the UK Government’s polices at Westminster’, ‘mainly the result of the Scottish Government’s policies’, or ‘for some other reason’. Table 1 shows who was considered responsible for the perceived changes in the economy, standard of living and standards in the health service:
There is clear evidence of a ‘halo effect’. Among those who thought the economy had got stronger, the standard of living had increased, or that standards in the health service had improved, responsibility for the improvement was more likely to be attributed to the Scottish Government than the UK Government.
In contrast, those who thought standards had deteriorated were more likely to blame the UK Government than its Scottish counterpart. For example, 45% of those who thought the standard of living had fallen in the past year and 31% who thought the economy had grown weaker thought that UK Government policies were responsible for this, compared with 17% and 25% respectively who thought that Scottish Government policies were responsible.
True, the gap was narrower among those who thought standards in the health service had fallen, with 28% thinking UK Government policies were responsible and 24% those of the Scottish Government. On this item, four in ten (40%) thought ‘some other reason’ was the cause of a fall in NHS standards in the past year, which is perhaps unsurprising given the health service was (and still is) recovering from the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the overall pattern is consistent with the evidence of previous research and previous iterations of the SSA survey.
If we dig deeper into the data, we discover that the attribution of credit and blame is clearly influenced by people’s party political identification. Table 2 provides a breakdown of where SNP and Conservative Party supporters attribute responsibility for falling standards across each of our three topics.
As would be expected, the majority of SNP supporters (54%) thought UK Government policies were responsible for the economy getting weaker and the standard of living falling (65%), whereas the majority of Conservative Party supporters thought that Scottish Government policies (67%) were responsible for the economy getting weaker and the standard of living falling (55%). Of those who thought that standards in the health service had fallen, 62% of Conservative Party supporters thought this was the result of Scottish Government policies, whereas only 6% of SNP supporters thought this was the case. The majority of SNP supporters (52%) who thought NHS standards had fallen reckoned this was because of ‘some other reason’, most likely the coronavirus pandemic.
Opposition parties in Scotland frequently try to persuade voters to blame the Scottish Government for poor performance in Scotland, whether in the economy as a whole or in the provision of public services. However, the results illuminate why this strategy may not be as effective as opposition parties might hope – namely that, when things go wrong, where responsibility is seen to lie is highly influenced by people’s existing party-political preferences. If things are thought to be going badly, someone who is sympathetic to the government at Holyrood can always apportion blame to the UK Government. The Scottish Government ‘halo’ shines brightest for its political supporters – and it is likely to be a continuing challenge for opposition parties in Scotland to convert negative news stories about the standard of living and public services to electoral success at Holyrood.
The Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey is run by ScotCen Social Research, with the aim of collecting objective data about public attitudes on issues relevant to Scotland. The full report and supporting annex tables can be found here.
About the author
Alex Scholes is a Researcher in the Social Attitudes team at ScotCen Social Research, with a particular interest in political attitudes. He works on a range of projects including the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which tracks changing public attitudes in Scotland to a range of different political and social issues.