Leading article: Our duty to give a home to Empire's orphans

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The Independent Online
Yesterday John Major cut a sod for the foundations of a new Japanese- owned factory in Wales. He didn't, try as he might, cut a dash - his repertoire of tones and gestures is too limited for that. Nonetheless his message came across loud and clear. We, the modern British, ought to be jolly proud that these Japanese capitalists rate us enough to invest here so let's welcome them and show them what we're made of. It's a compelling message - except it is a message founded on a lie. This Government does not welcome foreigners, especially those with yellow and brown skins. When it comes to the admission of foreign bodies, even those to whom Britain has old and deep obligations, this Government applies a colour bar. For as he cut his sod this Prime Minister and his colleagues were lobbying hard to prevent the introduction into the House of Commons today of a small piece of legislation offering Hong Kong's non-Chinese ethnic minorities the small security of a British passport carrying a right of abode here. Ending an empire is not, by and large, an edifying business and the hand- over of Hong Kong has been a sorry tale. In its last chapter, however, the Government's conduct towards Hong Kong's non-Chinese leaves the realms of the tawdry and becomes downright shameful.

These are people of Indian descent who are long-time residents of the colony. Numbering no more than 7,000 they are archetypal creatures of the British Empire - their forebears left the subcontinent to trade or to serve under British arms or to police imperial territories far from home. Their ambiguous status was recognised even before negotiations with the Chinese about the transfer of Hong Kong got going. They hold British National (Overseas) passports, which effectively expire on 1 July, the date Hong Kong transfers. After that their residency in Hong Kong becomes questionable: the Special Administrative Region which Hong Kong becomes is unlikely to offer them either a right of abode or a passport. They will become stateless.

This is no new story. Some eight years ago the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said special arrangements were needed to accommodate this very special - and very small - group of Empire's orphans. Four years ago the House of Lords resolved that the Government should issue them with British passports and assure them a right of abode here in the UK. Since then, we are assured by friends of the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, that he has been lobbying strongly and assiduously for the non- Chinese minority to be recognised as British - but all behind closed doors, of course, as one Conservative politician to another. Was there a hint that he might consider this a point of principle on which a man of principle might think of resigning? No, several thousand brown-skinned non-Chinese Hong Kong residents are hardly worth giving up the Governor's mansion and the plumed hat for, are they?

The way these things work - lobby terms, old boy - friends of Mr Patten, friends of Malcolm Rifkind and indeed friends of our sod-cutting Prime Minister have let it be known that their chaps would like to do the decent thing. The problem is that Michael Howard and his Home Office desperately fear precedents being set that might allow other non-white potential immigrants some purchase on the White Cliffs of Dover. This is nonsense. Cabinet responsibility holds for the Major government as for any other. Howard is no maverick; he articulates the policy of Messrs Major, Rifkind and indeed that accepted and implemented by the saintly Mr Patten.

But this fag-end administration is impervious to sarcasm. Let's instead rehearse an argument about obligations in time, one you might imagine would have some resonance with conservative if not Conservative politicians. Individually none of us can be held to account for the deeds or misdeeds of our parents or their parents. But to give the idea of society (now eagerly accepted by Conservatives) any meaning, generations have to have obligations one to another - bequeathing mountains of government debt, even concealed in the form of pension rights, is the grossest historical irresponsibility. Similarly, we are obliged to acknowledge the omissions and commissions of our parents' generation, at least to the extent of accepting we ought to tidy up after them.

Historians tell us how, even at its apogee, the British Empire largely passed most citizens of Britain by: they ate the cheap bread supplied from Canadian wheatfields and spun the cotton for which an Indian market had been created, but consciousness of imperial spread did not go deep. So ending Empire was less of a psychological upset than, say, in France or Portugal where imperial retreat reverberated for years in domestic politics. Pakistan, Egypt, Kenya, Rhodesia ... Britain got out relatively unscarred.

The same could not always be said about former subjects of Empire: Palestinians in Israel, Malays in Singapore, Indians in Uganda. In 1968 a Labour Home Secretary, reluctant, embarrassed, eventually did what was right and give some of the Asians of East Africa the security of access to life in Britain. God forbid that the Asians of Hong Kong should ever find themselves in similar circumstances. But whether that is likely or not, the British government should at once accept its historical duty. There are arguments, strong arguments, about how such immigrants enrich British national life. No scientific study has been done of the impact of the East African Asians on this country, but a hundred anecdotes would confirm it has been a blessing. Yet functional arguments give way to those of principled obligation. The Hong Kong Asians are casualties of our empire and we are obliged to admit them, at once and unconditionally.