Even before the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's hateful regime, it was clear the last Labour Government had co-operated with the monster in all kinds of discreditable ways.
It had sold him lots of weapons. It had welcomed, and almost certainly connived in, the Scottish Government's early release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which caused the deaths of 270 people, 43 of them British.
But only now is the true nature of Britain's shamingly close relationship with Gaddafi becoming clear, as a result of documents uncovered in Tripoli. Their authenticity has not been officially confirmed, and until that happens they should be treated with some caution. If, as seems extremely likely, they turn out to be genuine, we will have proof of a scandal of barely credible proportions. Some documents reveal that members of British intelligence helped obtain telephone numbers and details of Libyan dissidents in Britain, which they passed on to their counterparts in Tripoli.
|Shoulder to shoulder: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair embraces Colonel Gaddafi during a 2007 meeting
Even more serious is the suggestion that the Labour Government countenanced 'rendition' - the abduction and transfer of prisoners from one country to another. A succession of ministers, not least the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, repeatedly assured the House of Commons that we took no part in rendition.
And yet a CIA document found in Tripoli appears to show that Britain worked with Libya to secure the removal of a terrorist suspect from Hong Kong to Tripoli in March 2004. Abdel Hakim Belhadj, ironically now a senior military commander in the Libyan rebel army, says he was kept in isolation and regularly tortured by Gaddafi's men.
Belhadj may not be a very nice person. Indeed, the prominence of this Islamist in the rebel army makes me wonder again about our new Libyan 'friends'. But the suggestion that MI6 in effect arranged his torture is highly disturbing. A letter dated March 18, 2004, apparently from Mark Allen (now Sir Mark), at that time head of counter-terrorism in MI6, illuminates the extent of British involvement.
Sir Mark thanked Musa Kusa -- Gaddafi's intelligence chief, who is accused of many atrocities -- for 'the help you are giving us' in relation to Belhadj. He adds that No 10 is 'grateful' for Musa Kusa's role in arranging a forthcoming visit by Tony Blair to meet Gaddafi in Libya.
'No 10 are keen that the Prime Minister meet the leader in his tent,' Sir Mark writes. 'I don't know why the English are fascinated by tents. The plain fact is that the journalists would love it.' Really? I can't remember jumping up and down. The intimate tone of Sir Mark's letter to a man he knew was a torturer - and who served the interests of the monster Gaddafi - is sickening. So too is his sycophantic missive of a few months earlier in which he thanks Musa Kusa for a present of 'a very large volume of dates and oranges'. Let's hope Lady Allen enjoyed them.
Sir Mark Allen could not have built up a close relationship with a very senior member of Gaddafi's regime without the encouragement of Mr Blair and the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. It was part of an initiative endorsed by Mr Blair, the purpose of which was to wipe the slate clean with Gaddafi and to do business with him, irrespective of his past and continuing crimes.
Here was a very bad man who had funded the IRA and ordered the Lockerbie bombing. One of Gaddafi's diplomats had shot dead policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in London in 1984. MI6 and No 10 were also aware of the atrocities he had visited on his own people -- for example, the massacre of more than 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in a single month in 1996.
And yet, when Mr Blair met Gaddafi in his tent at the end of March 2004, the two men embraced like friends. I can see there was a good argument for Britain getting on civil terms with Libya, though suggestions that Gaddafi might have had nuclear weapons which he then decommissioned are fanciful. He was eager to make friends with the West, having seen Saddam Hussein pulverised, and of course he wanted the new business, too. Anglo-Dutch Shell and BP were awarded huge new contracts, and dozens of British companies moved into Libya. Oh yes, and in 2004 Sir Mark Allen landed a cushy, well-paid job as a special adviser to BP. His Libyan contacts may have come in useful. But the political gain was mostly Gaddafi's. Mr Blair's diplomacy, for which he took much credit, gave respectability to an unreformed and repressive regime.
Nothing came of a visit to Libya by British police investigating the murder of Yvonne Fletcher, though the Foreign Office believed it knew the names of those responsible. Meanwhile, the Libyans exerted growing pressure to secure the release of al-Megrahi, which finally took place in August 2009 on the spurious grounds that he had only three months to live. He is still alive.
Documents found in the abandoned residence of the British ambassador in Tripoli confirm how desperate the Labour Government was for him to be set free, with one diplomat warning that our new Libyan friends 'might seek to exact vengeance' if he wasn't. Earlier this year, Sir Gus O'Donnell, head of the civil service, said Labour ministers did 'all they could' to secure al-Megrahi's release.
The Labour Government also sold weapons to Gaddafi worth tens of millions of pounds, which were obviously intended for use against his own people: water cannon, armoured personnel carriers, tear gas and sniper rifles. Documents discovered in Tripoli suggest the SAS helped train Gaddafi's Khamis Brigade, which has carried out some of the worst atrocities of recent weeks.
My God, the shame of it. Rendition. Complicity in torture. Cosying up to monsters. Ignoring the case of Yvonne Fletcher. Facilitating the release of a man convicted of the murder of 270 people. Supplying arms and training Libyan forces.
The man who supervised most of this was that great moralist and Christian, Tony Blair, whose almost final act as Prime Minister in 2007 was to sign a 'prisoner exchange' agreement with his friend Col Gaddafi, which was plainly intended by the Libyan leader to pave the way for al-Megrahi's release, as indeed it did.
Our former prime minister, whose war against Saddam was partly rooted in his own trumpeted moral rectitude, was evidently drawn to Gaddafi, who was not obviously a better man than the Iraqi tyrant. How slight is Mr Blair's understanding of how a British statesman should behave is illustrated by yesterday's amazing revelation that he stood as godfather to a daughter of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
New allegations of rendition and complicity and torture will be investigated by Sir Peter Gibson's existing inquiry into the treatment of British detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Do we seriously think this inquiry will be able to address the mounting allegations that the last government, and Mr Blair in particular, succoured and promoted one of the nastiest regimes in the world?
If we can have numerous inquiries into the state of the British Press, we can surely manage a single one that examines Tony Blair's friendly dealings with a man who is now an indicted war criminal, as well investigating torture, rendition, al-Megrahi's release, training of Gaddafi's special forces, links with Libyan intelligence, and sales of weapons intended for repression. If only David Cameron had the guts for it!
© Daily Mail, London