Dominic Lawson: A Libyan stain on Britain's reputation

It was entirely predictable that Gaddafi would order annihilating force to be brought against internal opponents

Tuesday 22 February 2011 01:00

For sheer blood-curdling menace, the televised address by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi takes some beating. His broadcast to the Libyan nation included the threat that his father's regime would "fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet ... instead of crying over 200 deaths we will cry over hundreds and thousands of deaths".

He did bizarre as well as bloodcurdling, offering the demonstrators the concessions of "a new flag, a new national anthem"; and he accused other rioters of being "on hallucinogens or drugs" – although his own rambling delivery gave every impression that Muammar Gadaffi's son was under the influence.

Yet this was the man promoted as the entirely acceptable face of a 40-year-long dictatorship, not least in this country. He was feted by the last government, especially by Peter Mandelson, with whom he would socialise in the grand style. He was also fawned on by academia. Nine months ago, he was accorded the accolade of giving the Ralph Miliband lecture at the London School of Economics (presumably the late professor's sons, David and Ed, were invited along).

Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's very own foundation had written out a cheque for £1.5m to the LSE. Or perhaps not; anyway Professor David Held of the politics faculty at the LSE gave an excruciatingly smarmy introduction, telling the audience that "the Gaddafi Foundation devotes itself to humanitarian work ... especially in the field of human rights" and that "deep liberal values are at the core of his inspiration".

Tell that to the unarmed demonstrators under machine-gun assault from the Gaddafi family's mercenary shock troops. Yesterday, the LSE rushed out a statement saying that "the school has had a number of links with Libya in recent years. In view of the highly distressing news from Libya over the weekend, the school has reconsidered those links as a matter of urgency". Too late!

The same "reconsidering" is presumably taking place within government, although the developments in Libya are infinitely less embarrassing for the Coalition than they would have been for the previous administration. It was Tony Blair who made it part of his foreign policy mission to chummy up to Muammar Gaddafi and it was Gordon Brown who ordered the SAS to train the Libyan dictator's special forces.

Two weeks ago, official papers were released which demonstrated that Labour, despite its furious denials, had, in the words of the Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell, "developed [a policy] that Her Majesty's Government should do all it could ... to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish government for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's release". The freeing on "compassionate grounds" of the only man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing – the biggest mass murder ever to take place in this country – was just part of the wider effort to "normalise" relations between Britain and Libya.

At the time, I wrote in this column that it was ludicrous to become steamed up about the release of Megrahi while continuing to treat Gaddafi himself as a cuddly old darling: "On the assumption – shared by both the Scottish and British governments – that Megrahi was rightfully convicted, then what of Colonel Gaddafi himself? Is it seriously suggested that Megrahi, a long-serving officer in the Libyan intelligence service, had acted without orders from above? If anyone can be accused of being the malevolent power behind the slaughter of so many innocents heading home for Christmas with their families, that man is Muammar Abu Minyar al- Gaddafi. Yet this is also the man whose celebrations of 40 years of dictatorship are to be attended by prime ministers and presidents from across the globe."

Well, that is the way of the world. Once Gaddafi had foresworn his previous policy of financing acts of terror internationally (including by the IRA) then all is forgiven – especially if the man in question is sitting on top of billions of barrels of easily extractable crude oil. The Americans have been critical of Britain's open praise of the "new" Gaddafi, and were understandably furious about the release of Megrahi, but their own policy since 2004 has been equally friendly, at least as far as military business is concerned: two years ago, for example, the US firm General Dynamics signed a $165m contract to supply sophisticated communications systems to the Libyan Armed Forces' elite 32 Brigade.

The unsurprising truth is that while Gaddafi's confrontational attitude towards the West may have changed – he was deeply impressed by President Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein and did not want to be next on the hit-list – his character and methods remained the same as far as his own people were concerned. It was entirely predictable that he would order annihilating force to be brought to bear against any internal opponents, even unarmed student demonstrators. Any shock expressed by the British Foreign Office is itself shocking. They know – have always known – that this is the nature of Gaddafi's regime. After all, it was not so long ago that an uprising of political prisoners in Tripoli's Abu Salim jail was quelled by the massacre of more than 1,200 inmates.

Doubtless the British wooing of Saif Gaddafi was based partly on the notion that he would be a moderating influence on his father. While the old man was, to put it at its very mildest, eccentric, of all his sons Saif seemed the most westernised and the most – well, like us. He had a doctorate from the LSE; he mastered the language of international conferences; he could be invited to a country-house shoot and be relied upon to use a Purdey rather than a sub-machine gun; he was always to be seen wearing impeccable Savile Row suits – indeed he was thus attired when delivering his bloodthirsty address to the Libyan people on Sunday night.

It is a perennial weakness of British officials that they assume if a man has had a good education and wears the right sort of clothes it makes him somehow more trustworthy. They thought that about Robert Mugabe, finding it hard to imagine that a man educated by British missionaries and who insisted that his entire Cabinet abandon tribal costumes and wear British suits, could at the same time be capable of mass murder. But, of course, he could (and was awarded an honorary knighthood even after his troops had slaughtered up to 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland).

The behaviour of rulers such as Mugabe and Gaddafi can be explained, though not excused, by their fear of what might happen if they were to lose power. Completely ruthless themselves, they assume all their opponents (even, or especially, those professing to be democrats) would treat them as savagely if they ever got the chance; and, of course, the more people they have murdered, the more their suspicions are justified.

This would apply as much to the apparently civilised Saif Gaddafi as it does to his demented father. He is encouraging the regime's mercenary troops and remaining supporters in acts of extreme violence because he knows that should they fail to suppress the opposition he, along with his father, is likely to be slaughtered – assuming they don't escape to a foreign bolthole first.

According to one of last weekend's property supplements, Saif Gaddafi is offering his London home (complete with cinema and suede-lined walls) for rent at £9,500 a week. Say goodbye to it, Saif.

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