The BBC describes as a "surprise" the government's Commons defeat over the rules it intended to impose on Gurkha veterans wanting to settle in Britain. It didn't surprise me. The proposals - brought in after the High Court ruled the previous policy illegal - were cynically designed to be as exclusionary as possible. The right to settle was offered to soldiers who had served for twenty years, although the standard enlistment period is fifteen, for example.
Whether or not the government expected to lose, it's hard to see what they thought they were doing. The Gurkhas, with their near legendary status in the British army, proud history and romantic origins in the Nepalese highlands, have always been able to count on a vast reservoir of public goodwill. Once the campaign began to grant them equal rights with Commonwealth soldiers - fronted by the ever-popular Joanna Lumley - it was bound to attract widespread sympathy. Whatever points of cost or historic practice might be raised by the Home Office to keep them out were always bound to strike the average person - even allowing for the average person's general attitude towards immigration - as mean-spirited, ungrateful and cheap. I can think of few other foreign nationals wishing to settle in this country who would attract such wholehearted support from the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
The Gurkhas, in short, are a Special Case, not just morally - they fight our wars, after all - but also politically. A wise politician knows how to choose an enemy. Margaret Thatcher had Galtieri and Scargill. Tony Blair had Slobodan Milosovic, Saddam Hussein (and Gordon Brown). Brown, meanwhile, goes into battle against a relatively small number of old soldiers who will always be far more popular than he is. He even justified the policy this lunchtime in the House of Commons, when it was clear that both Opposition parties and a fair number of his own MPs were supporting the Gurkhas. Is this not utterly insane? After his giggling YouTube performance, followed a few days later by an even more embarrassing U-turn, it certainly appeared that he had completely lost the plot. This latest fiasco proves it.
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