A shabby way to treat a friend from the past: Britain's refusal to admit a former vice-president of Sierra Leone is the result of a strange form of political correctness, says Richard Dowden

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LAST Friday Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, introduced a new concept into British immigration policy. For centuries Britain has been a refuge for all sorts of exiles: deposed royalty, distressed revolutionaries, philosophers and spivs. As long as they could support themselves - and in many cases even if they could not - their morals and the source of their money went unquestioned.

Last week Mr Clarke changed all that. Abdulai Conteh, the former Vice-President of Sierra Leone, was refused permission to remain in Britain because he had been 'a member of a corrupt government'. When Mr Conteh asked for evidence he was told there was no suggestion that he personally was corrupt, but that the government he had served had bankrupted the country.

As a punishment, he will not be allowed to remain in Britain, where he has close links. He was educated at King's College London, and at King's, Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in law; he has two children, one of whom is a British citizen, in full-time education here. He also has a house in Finchley, north London.

Mr Conteh may, for all I know, own half the gold in Zurich, the proceeds of years of venality, but I doubt it. Compared with the long list of crooks and butchers with whom British foreign secretaries have wined and dined, he looks like an angel. There are plenty of African politicians who cannot tell the difference between the national treasury and their own bank accounts, who are given red-carpet treatment at the Foreign Office, if not at Downing Street or the Palace. There are many, no longer in power, who have emptied the national bank account and live here or visit regularly.

Mr Conteh has been in politics since 1977 and served as Foreign Minister and Finance Minister. On several occasions he was welcomed in London by David Owen and Lord Carrington in their capacities as Foreign Secretary, as well as by Malcolm Rifkind and Lynda Chalker. The regime in Sierra Leone was weak, corrupt and incompetent, but less so than many of its neighbours and a great deal more humane. Britain regarded it as hopeless rather than evil, and continued to do business with it.

Last year, President Momoh asked Mr Conteh to serve as Vice-President with responsibility for turning Sierra Leone from a one-party state into a multi-party democracy. Soon afterwards he came to London to ask Mrs Chalker, unsuccessfully, for military equipment for the country's poorly equipped army, which was fighting a rebel movement that had spilt over from Liberia.

It was that war which politicised the Sierra Leonean army, and this April it overthrew the Momoh government. Mr Conteh fled. He had no passport or papers, and endured a 15-hour trip along the coast to Guinea in a dug-out canoe. Here he was given a Guinean diplomatic passport and managed to get a ticket to London via Brussels.

When he arrived at Heathrow he phoned his old friend Mrs Chalker. She was away. Instead of finding refuge, he was arrested for illegal entry. The only thing wrong with his papers was the place of birth.

In his request for asylum he argued that he had family connections here and somewhere to live, the usual qualifications. He has no connections whatever with Belgium, which is where the Home Office wants to send him because that was the country from which he came to Britain.

During the Cold War the most atrocious regimes were treated with respect because they were anti-Communist. Human rights and democracy were causes fought by fringe campaigners. 'Saddam Hussein is a bloody butcher but he's on our side,' a Western ambassador in Baghdad told me in the early Eighties.

Then a different language crept in. The World Bank began to talk about 'governance', a word I associate with the 17th-century debate about the divine right of kings. The Americans started to look to 'democracy' as an ideal, and the British - realising that one man, one vote might lead to the demise of allies - chose 'good government'.

Aid was cut to Kenya, Sudan, Malawi and a host of other countries because of lack of progress towards democracy or respect for human rights. Baroness Chalker began a recent speech by stating that Britain would no longer put its values aside when allocating aid, but would target those countries which encouraged market economies, pursued good government and respected human rights.

Few would want to disagree with that policy, but there is a great difference between encouraging good government and retrospectively punishing an individual who was a member of a government now regarded as corrupt.

Is it an example of the new puritanism in government that political failure is accompanied by moral disgrace? Or is it a warning for other visiting ministers of recalcitrant governments? When Lady Chalker meets them over lunch at the Foreign Office does she tell them the sad tale of Mr Conteh? And when they swap phone numbers does she add: 'By the way, if you are overthrown in a coup and make it to London, don't call me'?