Debt that must be honoured in full

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am

Hooray and three hearty cheers for the British judge who this week finally delivered a smidgen of justice to brave men who fought and nearly died for Britain.

What did the Honourable Mr Justice Blake do for five Gurkha soldiers and a widow: give them GBP1 million (HK$13.8 million) each or a Rolls-Royce? No, he told them that the British government was wrong when it denied them the right to live in Britain; their service for the crown earned them 'an unquestionable moral debt of honour' from the British people.

The ruling affects more than the six who made their case in court, or the 2,000 ex-Gurkha soldiers denied entry to Britain. It reverberates to Kathmandu, Hong Kong and Macau, where the denials of entry were made, and round the world. At the heart, there are two linked questions: how does Britain discharge its obligations from once being a world power with 'an empire on which the sun never set?' And how does modern Britain deal with the rest of the world?

It is clear from the conduct of the case that these responsibilities should be taken away from the Home Office, which has become a bastion of Little England reactionary policies where the original Big Brother works and pulls the strings.

At the very least, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith should resign. If she had any shred of honour, she would have apologised and opened the door to the 2,000 other affected Gurkhas. Instead, she promised only to review all the cases by the end of the year. She also tried to claim victory in the middle of the judge's stinging words, saying: 'The judge has agreed that our cut-off date of 1997 is fair.'

Hong Kong is intimately involved in this cut-off date, under which Gurkhas who retired from the British army after 1997 are allowed to live in Britain, whereas those who retired before must prove 'strong ties' to Britain. Why was 1997 chosen? Because, for decades until then, the Brigade of Gurkhas had its headquarters in Hong Kong, even though its troops did duty wherever London wanted them to fight and die - as 43,000 did in both world wars.

Someone should remind all the little brothers in the Home Office that, until 1997, Hong Kong was regarded as part of the British empire.

Gurkhas have been fighting for Britain since 1817. They served in both world wars and in Malaya, the Falklands, the Gulf war, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they were in the protection detail for Prince Harry when he was serving secretly in the country. Gurkha soldiers have won 13 Victoria Crosses, the highest Commonwealth award for gallantry, yet some Gurkha VCs have been told that they lack sufficiently close ties with Britain to settle there.

The decision to draw a 1997 line was maladroit and stupid. The numbers involved were too small, and indeed Britain in its own interests should be more welcoming towards retired Gurkhas. With their military training and calm temperament, they are ideal for security: let them replace the surly guards who have given Heathrow such a wretched name.

There is a wider point. It concerns Britain's view of the world. In past centuries, Britain and its economy gained from hospitality towards foreigners, especially refugees, including Jews and Huguenots.

In the postwar period, Britain's doors were open to empire and Commonwealth citizens, and West Indians came to crew the London Underground and buses, people from Hong Kong's New Territories with no cooking qualifications arrived to set up Chinese restaurants, and large numbers from Mirpur (in Pakistan) and Sylhet (in Bangladesh) migrated to Bradford and Brick Lane. That is an oversimplification, but Britain did not follow the more choosy ways of the US and Australia in trying to skim the best potential migrants. Immigration has enriched British society, but not without problems.

Belatedly realising that some immigrants and some Britons were creating potential racial problems, Britain tried to close its doors through a series of short-term, shortsighted reactions to a long-term issue. Admittedly, the Home Office was not helped by pressures from right-wing 'Keep Britain white' lobbyists and from Muslim migrants insisting on their right to choose spouses for their children from their home villages in Pakistan.

This led to the big brother Home Office demanding to inspect marriages to see whether they are genuine love marriages - which are OK - or for convenience, in which case the bride (usually) is denied entry. Ludicrously, this has involved officials investigating couples married for years and with several children.

It is a duty that officials are instructed to take seriously. I stood behind one poor (white) British man who was seeking a visa for his Filipino wife from the consulate in Hong Kong. The (Indian) entry clearance officer barked at him: 'I told you to bring a year's bank statements and you have only brought me 10 months'. This is not good enough.' The notices on the walls warn that the consulate's staff must be treated with respect.

The European Union's free movement of labour has also raised Britain's ramparts. Now employers have to give preference to EU job seekers.

Britain is preparing to enforce identity cards on everyone, infringing traditional British freedoms. It is easy to see why officials are scared. Islamic terrorism is on the prowl. Initially, the IDs are only for foreigners, but that will not protect against home-grown terrorists, so the officials will press for everyone to have and carry them at all times.

Unfortunately, the ID cards are not the solution to the problems Britain faces, such as fraud and terrorism, or not until the smart chip can read minds and record thoughts. Big Brother is working on that.

But the Gurkha court case exposes potentially fatal flaws in Big Brother's character: the xenophobic suspicion of foreigners; a failure to understand the size of a problem; and a reluctance to admit being wrong and apologise. It is a reminder of the old warning about the corrosive influence of all power - who will guard the guards themselves?

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator