I cannot for the life of me understand the government’s attitude to the Gurkhas’ immigration status. It is an unwinnable political fight in which they have been trounced again, and the Commons defeat today is the most direct personal slap to Gordon Brown, coming immediately after Nick Clegg trounced him on this question at Prime Minister’s Questions.
As in the question of immigration rights for Iraqi interpreters working for the UK, the government has acted ungratefully, against all public opinion, and for no very clear reason.
I am in general an advocate of immigration. But plainly there is much more immigration than the government actually intended. It is a fact that the number of illegal immigrants in the UK is well over a million. I very much support Boris Johnson’s idea of an amnesty to allow them to stay in the UK. I have not heard another viable solution.
But what makes no sense is this. Every time I get on a 207 bus I am immersed in newly immigrant Somali, Sudanese and Russian people, and I appear to be the only person who speaks English on his mobile phone. I am not against that in the least, but if we can absorb these diverse groups with little attachment to the UK, how come we can’t fit in Gurkhas who have a long attachment to this country and have been prepared to die for it?
If the government were taking its stance against the background of a tough immigration policy, that would be wrong but at least it would be intellectually consistent. But to keep the Gurkhas out while letting several million other first generation immigrants in, seems perverse in the extreme.
Jack Straw was sitting alongside Brown in the Commons today. Jack Straw has a deserved reputation as an MP who assiduously cultivates his constituency. I stayed there for four months in 2005 when I stood against him.
I used to line manage the UK’s fifth largest visa operation (in Accra) and so I know my immigration rules. In Blackburn I forged close links with the Muslim community, and a constant theme was their gratitude to Jack Straw for assistance with visa cases. I met several instances of people living in Blackburn who were relatives but not dependants of earlier immigrants, and who told me they had obtained their visas following the personal intervention of Straw when Home or Foreign Secretary. In many of these cases, particularly involving nieces/nephews given settlement visas, I could conceive of no way within the immigration rules those visas should have been given.
Muslim community leaders in Blackburn understood this very well. They were under some pressure from national Muslim organisations to support me because of my opposition to the war in Iraq and to the torture of Muslims – and to oppose Straw for his roles in those things. But they asked me directly how as MP I would be able to help those kind of cases, when I would not be in a key government position like Straw.
I replied that I would be able to help those within the rules by assiduous work, and be able to help in cases of humanitarian concern where rules needed to be bent. But wholesale abuse of immigration procedure would not be something I would do. So they thanked me and did not support me.
So I watched the smirking Straw today. A man who sent hundreds of British soldiers, including Gurkhas, to their deaths in illegal wars. And a man who will not lift a finger to help the Gurkhas, even though he has worked continually to bring more immigrants into Blackburn, for his own political advantage.