(First published on C4 News website)
The manpower of the British Army is now at its lowest level for more than 200 years. At around 82,000 soldiers this is fewer than during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the Ministry of Defence hopes to retain its capabilities and its tempo of operations. That is a questionable and ambitious goal given the volatile nature of the world today.
In recent times, some 21,000 British soldiers have been cut from the order of battle: men and women from Scottish regiments, historic English regiments — some of the oldest infantry units in the army.
The strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas has remained virtually undiminished since those recent cuts. However their numbers were drastically cut in the 1990s when the army as a whole was restructured from the Cold War footing of the years before.
These men (there are no women, though this is set to change) have served the Crown for 201 years. Native (Nepalese-born) Gurkhas have won 13 Victoria Crosses and are rightly viewed as a model of loyalty; an institution within an institution. And it is another British institution — the actress Joanna Lumley — who long fought to secure rights for the Gurkhas that were commensurate with other soldiers who serve the UK. Chief amongst those rights were pension entitlements.
Ms Lumley secured her victory. In 2007 the government said that it would put Gurkhas on an equal pension footing and backdate this allowance to 1997, the point at which the Gurkhas’ home base moved to the UK. Some ex Gurkhas have complained that the equitable provision should pre-date 1997 but their claim was dismissed this September by the European Court of Human Rights.
Ms Lumley’s efforts were clearly in tune with the Great British public. But have her achievements actually weakened rather than strengthened the long-term future of the Brigade of Gurkhas as a core part of the UK’s military offering?
For while the cost of employing a Gurkha has risen, his flexibility has not.
Each man who joins the Gurkhas goes through a rigorous selection process in Nepal (paid for by the MOD). The successful candidates are then transported to the UK (paid for by the MOD) undergo military training which includes English lessons (paid for by the MOD). After five years they are entitled to what is known as long leave, six months at home in Nepal, during which time they are again supported by the MOD (though this too is set to change). Of course the MOD is not spending its own money. It is spending taxpayer cash. Our money.
So what do we get in return? Obedience and bravery, unquestionably. The fighting record of the Gurkhas is second to none. And yet in modern times soldiering has not been limited to warfare in far-flung places. And this is where the Gurkhas limitations are revealed, for what they don’t possess is utility.
The Northern Ireland conflict dragged on for 30 years yet not one Gurkha unit served on what was known as Op Banner. Nor did they turn out to help with the fire strike in 2002 that drew in 18,000 military personnel. And they were also absent from the Foot and Mouth disease front line. In fact they have not and never will help with any task that supports the UK civil power. Why? Because the memorandum of understanding with Nepal prohibits it. Simply put, if the Gurkhas were the last troops on the island when civil order broke down they would not deploy to restore it. To that end they have less flexibility than your average soldier.
What the Gurkhas do possess is the ability to recruit and recruit quickly. Having reduced the size of the military to an all-time low, by keeping the Brigade of Gurkhas the British Army can be rapidly enlarged should the need arise. But retaining these men of honour has meant that other men of honour, men from the UK, have found themselves out of a job.
I am Northern Irish. I served in an Irish regiment. That regiment was once the largest in the British Army. Now it is the smallest. There are more Gurkhas currently serving in the British Army than there are Irishmen. In total, Irish-born service personnel have won 188 VCs (of 1,355 awarded) yet that illustrious history counted for nothing as we were decimated in similar style to all those other units that have their roots in the UK.
If the Gurkhas really want equality then their usefulness should be subjected to the same objective scrutiny lavished on other regiments and corps. In the interests of fairness, surely no one — Ms Lumley included – could disagree with that?