Sarah Sands: If we won't fight for the Gurkhas, what is worth fighting for?

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The Independent Online

Labour's little Malthus, Hazel Blears, has warned that immigration is a voter issue. She has not yet used the taboo word "swamped" but it is implied.

All debates on Britishness seem to end with a melancholy shrug. It is a meaningless term. We are not a nation any more, merely an inchoate crowd.

Somehow, the contrasting photographs of an elderly paedophile in a nylon tracksuit arriving in England after being kicked out of Australia and the wounded Gurkha veteran denied all the rights of a British citizen are a painful expression of the state we are in.

The cases of Raymond Horne, who, like it or not, holds a British passport, and Gyanendra Rai, who, unluckily, does not enjoy the post-1997 rights won for the Gurkhas, are not directly connected. Yet they stir in us a sense of shame and injustice.

Horne has no love of Britain; he left here when he was five and has since served 12 years in jail for assaulting young boys. He has not served his country of birth and has achieved nothing honourable in its name.

Gyanendra Rai was a member of the Gurkha Brigade for 13 years and fought in the Falklands War. He was wounded and partially paralysed. He should not have to ask us for medical help, but we have become such an uncivil society that we do not offer it.

Before 1997, Gurkha veterans received only a sixth of the pension given to white comrades and were not awarded British citizenship. It was both racist and ungrateful. The Gurkhas have a reputation of toughness and obedience. They do not complain lightly. The dignified protest outside Parliament by 50 Gurkha veterans this week, who returned their British medals for bravery, is mortifying. Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, says that ministers would "listen carefully".

But this is not a matter for the Treasury; it is for the heart and conscience. Why are we spurning those who love and serve Britain while we cringe before those who do not? Gordon Brown cannot get agreement on any kind on a pledge of allegiance in Britain. Yet those who join the armed services unhesitatingly serve Queen and country.

The Army is an interesting example of extremely successful immigration. Some of the bravest infantrymen are from Fiji, as well as Nepal. The Poles have had an uneven reception in Britain; I bet they would settle far more easily in the Army.

It is not surprising that Prince Harry was put under the care of the Gurkhas while in Afghanistan. There is no brigade more loyal. Even if we do not value loyalty to Britain any more, should we not admire qualities of courage and resilience and resourcefulness?

I met many Gurkhas in Nepal last year and discovered the frisson of connection. Many had relatives going through selection procedures for the British Army – 28,000 for 200 places. The two figures of greatest significance to them were the Queen and Michael Palin.

As I sat quietly with my guide watching the sun set over the Himalayas, I felt the pull of historical ties and shared values. The Gurkhas are among Britain's oldest allies and deepest friends.

When the Prime Minister raised the pledge of allegiance, Helena Kennedy QC was quick to deride the notion. She could not resist a note of self-interest, however. If we defer to anything, she said, it should be the great institution of British law.

I am afraid my heart would not be in it this week. Sometimes the law may be correct and unjust. If we believe that Britain is worth fighting for, we have to repay our debt to the Gurkha veterans.

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