Scotland has pulled together during the Covid crisis and is now a more united nation, according to the largest survey of public attitudes during the pandemic.

The transformation within Scotland’s communities could drive a step-change in social connection once the country recovers, the research has found.

The Talk/together study, ‘Our Chance to Reconnect’ – with responses from nearly 160,000 people across all four nations – is the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together.

It found that neighbourly acts of kindness and the relief effort brought communities together in Scotland, and people have a strong sense of national identity which has gradually become more inclusive of minority groups.

Four times as many people in Scotland said Covid made their local community more united (45%) than those who said it is more divided (11%).

And research by ICM found that people in Scotland were twice as likely to agree that ‘overall, the public’s response to the coronavirus crisis has shown the unity of our society more than its divides’ (51% agree to 24% disagree).

But the study found that both Scotland and the UK stand at a ‘crossroads’ with the risk of new divisions opening up unless the lessons of the past year are learned, and opportunities are acted upon.

In Scotland, there are particular concerns about divisions over independence, with appeals from people on both sides of the debate for a more respectful conversation, with politicians urged to lead by example.

The report found there is a pressing desire to ‘disagree better’ and an initiative for more civil political debate in Scotland.

Across the UK, the Talk/together study involved an online survey with almost 80,000 responses, five national polls with a total sample of over 10,000 people and online focus groups with almost 500 participants from every nation and region. Partner organisations in the /Together coalition supplied evidence from surveys, online events and other research involving another 68,000 respondents. Over 5,500 responses to surveys came from Scotland, and a December ICM poll as part of the report included 452 people in Scotland.

Report co-author Jill Rutter from the /Together coalition said:

“We heard from thousands of people across Scotland, from March 2020 through to January this year, who shared their fears, frustrations and hopes for the future.

“Despite everything we’ve been through, there is a sense that communities have stayed strong and pulled together – and that new connections have been made.”

Kezia Dugdale, director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service and a member of the /Together steering group, said:

This pandemic has brought people together, but this must not be the high-water mark – this is a base from which to build.

“There are still stark divisions in our society, and it is in the interest of all politicians and activists to change the tone and reset the language used in our politics.

“The report shows the public is demanding a more respectful conversation, and if politicians and activists fail to learn how to disagree better then not only will their own causes suffer, but distrust in our democracy will deepen.”

Stephen Gethins, professor of practice in international relations at the University of St Andrews and former SNP MP, said:

“Politics is and should continue to be the business of discussing and debating difficult issues.

“In a democracy there will inevitably be a variety of views and opinions – our society is richer for the differences.

“There can be no space however for abuse and personalised attacks. It undermines our democracy and bluntly undermines the case that the person is seeking to promote.

“Over the coming months and years voters in Scotland will continue to be required to make significant decisions over the country’s future and this study shows that people want to see a debate that is respectful and informed.”

Bishop Nick Baines, chair of /Together trustees, said:

“Despite the immense challenges of this pandemic, people have responded by pulling together, not apart. That is quite remarkable, given how divided our society looked as Britain entered 2020.

“There are worries, too, about divisions re-emerging in the difficult times to come. But we found a clear public appetite for a society in which we are more connected to each other and the community spirit of 2020 is kept alive.”

Key findings in Scotland

  • 51% of people in Scotland agreed that ‘overall, the public’s response to the coronavirus crisis has shown the unity of our society more than its divides’. (UK = 50%).
  • Asked if the coronavirus pandemic made your local community more united or more divided, 45% in Scotland said ‘more united’ (UK = 41%); 11% in Scotland said ‘more divided’ (UK = 13%).
  • 53% of people in Scotland agreed their ‘local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together’ (UK = 48%).
  • 72% of people in Scotland agreed ‘I feel I belong to Scotland’ (England = 62%; Wales = 77%).
  • 22% of the adult population in Scotland (975,000 people) offered their time as informal or formal volunteers in 2020, with 360,000 first-time volunteers of which 310,000 are interested in volunteering again.
  • 42% of Scots are worried about divisions between rich and poor (UK = 45%).
  • 27% of Scots are worried about divisions between people from different ethnic groups (UK = 33%).
  • Looking to the future, asked what divisions in the UK worry people most, 26% (UK-wide) said divisions between those who want independence for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and those who do not. In Scotland, the figure was 60%.
  • 86% of Scots want politicians from different parties to ‘work together to solve this country’s problems’ (UK = 83%).
  • Conversations highlighted ‘perceived under-investment in rural services’ in Scotland.
  • Sectarianism was raised as a division in the central belt and some talked about ‘feeling unsafe in some areas, particularly when the Old Firm was playing’.

Addressing the constitutional debate in Scotland, the report concludes:

“It is important that politicians take a lead in setting the tone of the campaign and calling out hatred when it comes from their own side.

“There is also a real need for more civil society initiatives that provide safe spaces for respectful political debate.”

@togethercoalit #TalkTogether