Home England government Nostalgia for the British Empire played a part in the Brexit vote, says Nobel laureate | hay festival

Nostalgia for the British Empire played a part in the Brexit vote, says Nobel laureate | hay festival

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Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah said he suspected the British Empire was “still important in Britain” and may well have played a role in the Brexit vote.

The Zanzibar-born author, 73, told Hay Festival audiences he thought there was a sense of ‘we can go it alone, because we’ve done it before’ among voters during of the 2016 referendum.

Even though such views can no longer be expressed by the “wave flag” or the “shouting”, Gurnah said he believes subconscious imperial attitudes affect the way many Britons think.

The Kent-based writer also said details of Britain’s colonial past had been “deliberately concealed” by the government. He cited the example of pensioners who took the government to court for being tortured during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.

“The reason they won their case was that it turned out that there were boxes and boxes of documents, held somewhere in the country, which were the archives of various documents from various colonies,” said Gurnah.

“Among these were documents from Kenya, which … proved that torture was a normal practice in the detention center where these people were being held. This led to the Foreign Office paying £19.9 million in fees and allowances to elderly Kenyans.

Gurnah criticized how governments, even in recent years, have chosen to pay those who have brought such lawsuits, rather than release potentially incriminating documents. “The main thing [the government is concerned about] is to make sure the stories don’t come out whole,” he said.

Not knowing the full history of Britain’s colonial crimes had led to lingering imperial attitudes, Gurnah suggested, and helped explain Britain’s current hostility to immigration.

The writer, who arrived in Britain from Zanzibar in the 1960s, said he had seen a number of “freaks about foreigners” over the years. “I don’t know what to do about it, mainly because it seems like an infinitely cruel narrative,” he said.

He added that the desire for an old-fashioned empire was not specific to Britain, noting that “there is something medieval about what Putin is doing in Ukraine.”

Gurnah, who retired from teaching at the University of Kent in 2017, became the first black African writer in 35 years to win the Nobel Prize for Literature last October. Her novels include Paradise, shortlisted for the Booker in 1994, and most recently Afterlives, published in 2020.