ONE of the most contentious aspects of the Scottish referendum
was the Yes campaign's readiness to rely on a "victim" narrative as
a justification for independence. The worst example of this was the
comparison between Scotland and an abused wife who did not need
permission to seek a divorce.
The narrative of victimhood also underlay the extraordinary
identification of Alex Salmond with Gandhi - as though for the past
300 years Scotland had been an oppressed British colony.
The creation of a culture of victimhood is often a strategy in
nationalist and separationist movements. It provides excitement and
romance, and catches the imagination of musicians, writers, and
The victim narrative justified the snatch-back, by Russia, of
Crimea, and now supports its covert interference in east Ukraine.
It played a huge part on all sides in the Balkan wars; Israel and
Palestine both use the narrative of victimhood; and even massive
China can indulge in it, in its rhetorical war against Japan.
The core idea is to portray the "other" as an abusive enemy.
This often involves a rewriting of history, a grisly celebration of
past defeats, and a glorification of violence in the cause of
freedom. It is an easy message to sell, and it rouses strong
emotions, so that people are permanently fired up by the language
As the ugly rhetoric increased in Scotland, I was reminded of
what such narratives can lead to. I remember Welsh nationalists
setting fire to the weekend homes of English neighbours, and, of
course, the endless self-pitying, self-glorifying rhetoric that
used to be employed by the IRA.
There is a terrible irony in all this, because the agony of real
victims is that they are not heard at all. Even when they find the
courage to speak their truth, they are frequently dismissed. You
have only to think of the Rotherham abuse victims to realise how
real victimhood means disempowerment. Nobody listens. You have no
voice, and no advocate.
The victim narrative employed between nations, and groups within
nations, is a manipulative ploy. It hijacks the experience of real
victims to give false credibility to a cause that might otherwise
have to struggle harder to come up with sound arguments for its
policies and actions. It short-circuits true negotiation.
There are good reasons for being suspicious of the narrative of
victimhood, especially in connection with nationalism. Victims who
trumpet their sufferings through megaphones are usually engaged in
something more like aggression.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,