UK's Brown Defeated Over Nepalese Soldiers

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suffered a rare parliamentary defeat. Earlier this week, lawmakers voted to overturn new rules that restrict the number of former Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who may settle in Britain.

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suffered a defeat in the House of Commons. And the source of his thrashing is a throwback to the old British Empire: The Gurkhas of Nepal, soldiers who've served the British military since the 19th century. The prime minister wanted to limit the number of retired Gurkhas who could move to Great Britain, and that's where his trouble began. Here's NPR's Rob Gifford.

ROB GIFFORD: Twenty-seven members of the ruling Labour Party crossed the party divide and voted against their own leader and in support of offering all Gurkha soldiers an equal right to residence in Britain. At present, there are restrictions on how many Nepalese veterans can come and live here, even if they've served long years in the British army. The government says allowing all veterans and their families in would mean some 100,000 Nepalese entering Britain at a cost of about $2 billion.

Opponents say the number would be an absolute maximum of around 20,000. And so far, only 1,300 have applied. The issue has become something of a lightening rod for much recent criticism of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who tried in Parliament to strike a balance of firmness and generosity.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Britain): We're determined to honor the service that the Gurkhas give. We have been very proud of what they have done for our country. We have made major changes over the last few years. We are prepared now to make major changes again. And we are prepared to continue to review the situation for the future, but it must be based on proper facts and proper figures, and it must be based on the ability to make decisions that we can afford.

(Soundbite of applause)

GIFFORD: The Gurkha soldiers have served in the British army since the early 19th century, when Britain suffered heavy casualties trying to invade Nepal. A subsequent peace deal allowed for the recruitment of Nepalese soldiers, who were known then, as now, for their toughness. In World War II, there were more than 100,000 of them serving in the British Army. That number is down to just 3,500.

But the soldiers are still selected from young men living in the mountains of Nepal, with about 28,000 of them applying each year, the rigorous selection procedure from which just 200 are chosen. Opposition politicians such as the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg mocked Gordon Brown for his stance on the issue.

Mr. NICK CLEGG (Leader, Liberal Democratic Party): What kind of answer is that? It's the answer…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLEGG: It's the answer of a man who seems to know he's doing a shameful thing, but hasn't got the guts to admit it or change it.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Mr. CLEGG: It's the answer of a government that has no principles and no courage. I ask him again - I've ask him again: Surely, simple, ordinary British decency means that soldiers who are prepared to die for this country deserve to live in this country.

GIFFORD: Gurkha cause has been greatly helped by the support of actress Joanna Lumley, who starred in the television series "The New Avengers" in the 1970s and more recently in the comedy "Absolutely Fabulous." Lumley was born in British India, where her father was an officer in the Sixth Gurkha Rifles, and she's frequently seen at rallies like yesterday's celebrations issuing the traditional Gurkha war cry.

Ms. JOANNA LUMLEY (Actress): When it came through, we saw it on the screen in the corner, I can't tell you the sense of the nation, the sense of pride, pride in our country, pride in the democratic system, pride in our Parliament, in the fact that people's voices do matter. They are hurt by our politicians and we can change things. Aayo Gurkhali.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

GIFFORD: Immigration Minister Phil Woolas told MPs that the government respected the will of the House of Commons and would look again at the figures. Certainly, on this issue, Brown seems to have misjudged the public mood. As one letter to the Guardian newspaper read this morning: One Gurkha is worth 100 greedy bankers.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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Correction May 1, 2009

We said, "The Gurkha cause has been greatly helped by the support of actress Joanna Lumley, who starred in the television series "The New Avengers" in the '60s ..." In fact, Lumley starred in "The New Avengers" in the 1970s.

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