The Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah has said he suspects the British empire is “still important in Britain” and may well have played a part in the Brexit vote.
The author, 73, born in Zanzibar, told the audience at the Hay festival that he believes there was a sense of “we can go alone, because we’ve done it before” among voters in the 2016 referendum.
Even if such views may no longer be expressed through “flag waving” or “shouting”, Gurnah said he thought that subconscious imperial attitudes affect the way many in Britain think.
The Kent-based writer also said certain details of Britain’s colonial past had been “deliberately withheld” by the government. He cited the example of the pensioners who took legal action against the government due to having been tortured during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
“The reason they won their case was because it came out that there were boxes and boxes of documents, held somewhere in the country, which were the archives of the various documents from various colonies,” said Gurnah.
“Amongst these were documents from Kenya, which … proved that torture was normal practice in the detention centre where these particular people were held.” This led the Foreign Office to pay out £19.9m in costs and compensation to the elderly Kenyans.
Gurnah criticised the way governments, even in recent years, had chosen to pay off those who brought forward such legal action, rather than publish potentially incriminating documents. “The main thing [the government is concerned about] is to make sure the stories don’t come out in full,” he said.
Not knowing the full story about Britain’s colonial crimes had led to persisting imperial attitudes, Gurnah suggested, and went some way to explaining the current hostility towards immigration in Britain.
The writer, who arrived in Britain from Zanzibar in the 1960s, said he had seen a number of “panics about strangers” over the years. “I don’t know what’s to be done about it, mainly because it just seems to be an endlessly cruel narrative,” he said.
He added that a 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 his teaching position 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. His novels include Paradise, shortlisted for the Booker in 1994, and, most recently Afterlives, published in 2020.