I have a confession to make. A few months ago I met Nigel Farage and found him to be a charming, humorous, and entertaining human being. Wearing a pink tie and holding a glass of water, he solemnly abjured the free bar and instead spoke eloquently about EU legislation and his radio debate with Nick Clegg. He even laughed at one of my jokes. Better the devil you know, I thought: here's a man who tells the world as he see it and isn’t afraid to bring his personality to bear on parliament.
The problem with devils you know, though, is that they can be devilish - and more worrisome still, they don’t shrink from sharing their diabolical nonsense with the public in the hope of raising a roguish cheer.
This is the mentality of Farage. Challenged by Newsweek two days ago as to who he defined as kind of “quality people” he wished to encourage to come to Britain, the Ukip leader brazenly suggested: “people who do not have HIV to be frank. That’s a good start. And people with a skill.” And for his next trick? Not content with cataloguing them next to the unskilled, Farage also suggested those living with HIV were as desirable to the UK as immigrants such as “that Latvian murderer” Arnis Zalkans, prime suspect in the Alice Gross murder case.
Strong rhetorical stuff, and not a line Farage was willing to back down on when challenged by John Humphrys on the Today Programme the next day. We need controls on “the quantity and quality of those that come to this country” maintained the jester in purple, thereby dashing any hope that Douglas Carswell’s by-election landslide would be the sole Ukip headline of the day.
One wonders, at this point, how exactly Farage substantively qualifies the worth of people both outside and inside the UK. Are the multitude of HIV positive doctors and nurses working for the NHS not of the quality he prefers? Would Richard Barnes – the gay Tory who last month defected to Ukip – agree that his HIV positive mates are “not quality”?
Because, of course, this was not simply a conversation about immigration, but a codified proxy attack on the minority groups who most commonly live with HIV in the UK; that is, statistically speaking, homosexual men followed by ethnic minorities (black-African men and women). And the message from Farage was loud and clear: if we don’t consider your counterparts outside the UK as “quality”, why should we think any differently about you?
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
1/8 1993: Alan Sked forms Ukip
History professor Alan Sked had been active in anti-EU politics for a while beore he founded Ukip in 1993. He resigned from the party after the 1997 election, concerned that it was attracting far-right members, and has been critical of Ukip since. Picture: Reuters
2/8 2005: Kilroy defects
Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk founded Veritas in 2005, after a failed bid to become leader, and took many of Ukip's elected members with him. But the party slowly lost its popularity and didn't put forward any candidates in the last election. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty REUTERS KD/RUS
3/8 2010: Farage becomes leader, again
Farage had led Ukip from 2006 until 2009, when he stood down to fight against the Speaker, John Bercow, for his Buckingham seat. He failed to win the election and returned to lead the party in November 2010. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty
4/8 2010: Ukip fights for election
Nigel Farage was injured in a plane crash on polling day in the 2010 general election, but his party increased its success in the votes. It fielded 572 candidates and took 3.1% of the vote, though failed to win any seats. REUTERS/Darren Staples
5/8 2013: Eastleigh gains
Ukip's candidate Diane James got the highest ever number of votes for any candidate from the party, but was beaten by the Liberal Democrats. The surge in support gave Ukip confidence ahead of local and European elections later in the year. Picture: Reuters
6/8 2013: Bloom kicked out
Godfrey Bloom, who served as an Ukip MEP from 2004 to 2014, had the whip withdrawn in 2013 after sexist comments and an attack on a journalist. He sat as an independent MEP until 2014, when he ended his term in office. Picture: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
7/8 2014: European election success
Ukip got a higher proportion of the vote than any other party in 2014's European elections, adding 11 new MEPs and taking its total to 24. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
8/8 2014: Carswell defects
Douglas Carswell defected from Ukip at the end of August, and was followed by Mark Reckless at the end of September, who resigned from the Tories amid rumours of many more defections to come. Picture: REUTERS/Toby Melville
It doesn't take a health worker to tell you that messages like these not only stigmatise HIV, but also discourage those at risk from either seeking treatment or being tested. (FYI, Nigel, this has clear-cut consequences: those being treated for HIV with antiretroviral drugs are rendered almost completely un-infectious, while those that remain untreated – currently about 24,000 in the UK – remain powerfully at risk in terms of likelihood of transmission.)
Not that the science lesson will be of much interest to Farage, who well knows this was a publicity stunt geared towards political posturing rather than any long term practical plan. The evidence? Right-wing Tory backbenchers proposed the same amendment to the Immigration Bill nine months ago only to have it rapidly quashed by the Home Office. It was also helpfully pointed out that the UN long ago gave conclusive evidence that HIV entry restrictions made not a jot of difference to public health - and were actually rather a wasteful diversion in the global fight against HIV.
So why are Ukip reheating a bad Tory idea that’s already been laughed out of town once? One subtext here is Ebola. Farage is preying on the old prejudice of the westerner’s fear of infection from Africa, and he has picked his moment artfully. HIV remains a proxy illness in many minds and with the word “infection” hanging so ominiously in the air, there’s rarely been a more opportune moment to galvanise stigma against the virus, or those that have to live with it.
I look forward to the next time me and Nigel meet. I plan on giving him less to laugh about, as well as mounting a challenge to his quality criteria test.Reuse content