The campaign for the right for Ghurkhas to stay in the UK reached a successful conclusion with Jacqui Smith’s announcement this afternoon that all Ghurkha veterans who retired before 1997 with at least four years' service will be allowed to settle in the UK. But it is a ‘people’s campaign’ that seems to me to be morally confused, and to entirely miss the more profound injustices in the issue.
Of course the basic argument has great appeal: if someone is prepared to risk their life fighting for a country, they should be allowed to live there. This is where the government’s earlier refusal to accede to the full demands of the campaign seemed immoral, in denying residency to those who had done so much for our country.
But I see a greater issue in the fact we are willing to let people living thousands of miles away from us fight for our country in wars that can have little significance for them, wars started by governments they never voted in, and whose interests they have no need to represent. Are there Ghurkhas fighting for us in Iraq? How can that be right, whether or not we then allow them to move here afterwards? What does that war mean to them? What are the beneficial effects of the war likely to be for Nepal?
The ‘deep connection’ between Britain and the Ghurkhas is an imperialist one. We came across the ‘tenacious’ Ghurkhas in an unsuccessful invasion of Nepal; the treaty signed by the British East India Company in 1815 then allowed Britain to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy. Britain found these soldiers then to be a useful asset whilst fighting in India. And now, to maintain this historical connection, we let some of their lucky, bright, fit young men continue to fight our wars.
The fact that fighting for Britain is an attractive prospect for the young men of Nepal simply points to the obviously inexcusable disparity between our country and theirs. Many young men aspire to become Ghurkhas, training for years to pass through the highly competitive application process, often at great expense. Less than one in thirty who apply get in; the others are ‘left’ to live a life that the Lumley campaign recognises to be far poorer than that available to people in the UK.
Indeed, the manner in which they are praised as soldiers seems to me largely to speak of their poor situation in Nepal, and our hugely imperialist relationship with them: a BBC report cites historian Tony Gould arguing that the Ghurkhas “are tough, they are brave, they are durable, they are amenable to discipline.” This sounds eerily like a description a British general might have offered a few hundred years ago of the ‘natives’ of some foreign land we had just ‘discovered’.
If we are to have people from foreign countries risking their lives fighting our country’s wars for us, we should let them live here. But the more immoral act to me seems the fact that we allow the world’s poor to compete with one another for the privilege of experiencing a small taste of western wealth. We should not have foreign mercenaries fighting our wars for us. Even less those poorest people whose effective choice in the matter is limited. And if living in Nepal offers unjustifiably poorer opportunities than those available to those of us living in the UK, we should think more profoundly of how we might redress this inequality so that the country as a whole might enjoy greater prosperity.