A victory that is more than justice

27 May 2009

Joanna Lumley fought amodel campaign for the Gurkhas, says Elaine Storkey

Which of us has not backed the Gurkha campaign, or nod­ded consent every time Joanna Lumley spelt out their case? For weeks, the public mood has been overwhelmingly in favour of their right to settle in the UK, and victory last week came not a day too soon.

The anatomy of the suc­­­cessful campaign has been minutely examined. There was the combination of glamour and courage, with the visual impact of a beautiful celebrity flanked by ageing Nepalese war veterans. Then, the personal link through Ms Lumley’s father, who fought alongside the Gurkhas during the Second World War, was a media winner, and gave the cam­­paign authen-ticity.

Public perceptions of the soldiers as brave and loyal, despite their treatment, highlighted the in­justice of their present situation. And the current disrespect for politics and politicians no doubt in­creased the public outrage, and made this the right campaign at the right moment.

But now that the cameras have packed up, and the cheers have stopped, what will the campaign leave behind? Certainly, a just outcome for brave people who risked their lives for the country they now want to live in, and a satisfaction that Britain can actually do the right thing when it has a mind to. But I hope there might be something more — some­thing less headline-grabbing, perhaps, but cru­cially important for the way we do public affairs.

For me, two things made this campaign dif­ferent. The first was the overriding sense that legal­ity must be brought into line with morality. Although it was legal to exclude Gurkhas from residency rights, being legal did not make the situation moral.

Morality is more profound, embedded in a deep sense of what, in Ms Lumley’s words, is “the great and good thing to do”. So the battle for the Gurkhas was being fought not just at the level of individual rights, but at this more foundational level of what constitutes universal morality.

The second thing was the tone of the cam­paign. It was so different from the petty self-righteousness that has become part of our political conscious­ness. Instead, courtesy, graciousness, and an affirm­ation that the decision-makers would do the right thing became the hallmark of Ms Lumley’s res­ponse. Was this a clever media strategy? Perhaps, but it demonstrated co-operation and trust rather than confrontation and cynicism.

After the Home Secretary broke the news, the con­­trasts in communication were huge. Opposi­tion politicians rushed to make political capital, sneer­ing at the “climbdown” and “public embarrass­ment”, triumphing that the Government had been dragged “kicking and screaming” to make this decision. Ms Lumley simply said thank you, and enveloped the judiciary, the Government, the media, and the public in a warm blanket of grati­tude and praise.

If the success of this campaign merely rein­forces celebrity culture, or triggers more political gloating, its triumph will be tinged with failure. It could, however, challenge us more deeply. It could help us glimpse a New Testament vision that puts law in the context of the demands of morality, and urges us to search our consciences.

It could help us to see what is meant by not bearing false witness, but speaking of opponents with fairness and truth. It could even help us to see the effectiveness of St Paul’s advice: to let our communication be full of grace and seasoned with salt. If this campaign brought about new attitudes within our culture, it would be an even greater victory for the Gurkhas.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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