Wilful ignorance on Aids is a relic of Thatcherism

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OUTSIDE the Crimean port of Feodosiya there are the ruined walls of an older city, and in these walls there is a gateway. It looks out towards the sea. Through it, and into the medieval Genoese colony of Kaffa, came bales of silk from China and Circassian slaves.

But, one day in 1347, something invisible came through this gate. It travelled on by sea and then land until it reached every city, nation and outlying island of Europe. The Black Death, the pandemic of pneumonic plague which within a few years killed perhaps a third of this continent's population, entered Europe when the Tartar besiegers of Kaffa passed it to merchants and sailors within the walls.

As it began to spread, there must have been distant princes who agreed with their courts that rumours of approaching universal death were overdone. A 'plague industry' must be at work, stoking up panic and cooking the statistics for its own interests. The bloody Church again, trying to make out that the wages of sin were death and that the high and mighty were as much at risk as the huddled poor . . .

The courtiers knew all about ordinary bubonic plague, which was bad enough but - let's face it - was basically a problem for dirty, ignorant villeins. Normal, plain folk who could go off to their country houses until it blew over were not at serious risk. All this alarmism about some new form of plague which killed in hours, not days, and was carried on the air really had to be confronted. The preachers' lobby was getting too big for its boots.

So the Black Death arrived, and princes and barons coughed, fell down and writhed and died just like the poor.

The global Aids pandemic is not a rapid killer like the Black Death. But it remains incurable and, in aspects of how it works, mysterious. And it has produced in the West especially a striking and pathological passion not to know about it.

After all that has been said and written in the past weeks, there is not much point in entering this argument about whether British heterosexuals are seriously at risk from the HIV virus. What argument? It is all over bar the shouting. As the Independent revealed last week, the Government now believes that in Britain between 20,000 and 30,000 identified people are infected by the virus, of whom about 7,000 are heterosexuals who have caught it by intercourse with the opposite sex. The majority, clearly, has been infected by homosexual sex, even allowing for the ill-defined group which has acquired HIV from dirty drug needles rather than from (mostly heterosexual) partners. But, with around a third of the total, 'ordinary' heterosexuals are also blatantly under threat. This threat is made far more serious because heterosexuals present no special risk-signal to their partners, and by the enormous size of the 'straight' population pool in which infection can spread.

These are facts, or elementary conclusions from facts. What is fascinating is the resistance to them: the orchestrated campaign against an 'Aids Industry' which is supposed to be concocting a threat to normal, jolly, promiscuous you-and-me in order to protect gays from hatred and contempt.

The first retort of the campaigners is that they are telling the truth and others are not: that their research is better than that of the 'Aids Industry'. This is quite clearly untrue. The evidence produced by campaigners such as Michael Fumento, James le Fanu and Professor Gordon Stewart was not scientifically serious and consisted substantially of non-evidence: a partial and polemical selection from data already published, sauced up with eccentric remarks about the incidence of shark bites and an allegation that Aids was not 'infectious' (whatever that may mean).

So it was not exactly reverence for new scentific discovery that inspired the Sunday Times to take up the campaign, and argue that healthy, straight sex was safe. What was it, then? All stories about sex sell newspapers, including this one, and stories about sex which tell readers what they want to know, rather than what they do not want to know, probably sell even more newspapers. But Andrew Neil, the editor, has taken a rather different line. He explains that he wanted to support 'dissidents' in a case where information was being suppressed. This sounds like journalists' talk: tough, green-eyeshade stuff. But in fact it is an eerie battle hymn from the recent political past: the Lay of the Last Thatcherite.

The Right had many different songs in the 1980s, if not all the best ones. One of them, a Sunday Times speciality, was the populist hymn of hate against an imaginary 'liberal intellectual Establishment' which lived in Hampstead, drank Montrachet at 'favourite watering-holes', and at 'the country's more fashionable dining-tables' plotted to promote 'ideals out of kilter with the aspirations of plain folk'. Those who dared to challenge this all-powerful Establishment were 'dissidents', whose opinions were censored off the BBC and blackballed from the Garrick Club.

Those who conspired against the 'aspirations of plain folk' (England's version of the Nazi gesundes Volksempfinden - healthy folk-instinct) formed cliques described as 'industries'. Thus there was invented a 'race-relations industry', devoted to gagging plain folk who tried to point out the obvious truth that blacks were ignorant, violent, bad for property values and too numerous. There was a 'poverty lobby', which suppressed the obvious truth that everyone was far better off since the Tories came to power in 1979 and that the so-called poor were merely a feckless underclass of chronic spongers. There was a Third-World industry which gave our flag-day pennies to black dictators, and a Euro-industry to abolish Parliament and hand us over to the Germans. And, finally, there appeared an 'Aids industry'.

As invented and ventriloquised by the Sunday Times, plain folk aspire to have a naughty, normal sex life without being made to feel guilty - and without having to take lessons from a pack of mincing poofters. And yet (so these imaginary readers are made to protest), if you state the obvious truth that Aids is a queers' disease, you get shouted down and the Government falls over itself to tell you that you can catch it too. An unholy alliance of gays and pseudo-intellectual do-gooders is putting over that black is white, and getting away with it . . .

The campaign against the 'Aids industry' is not just nonsensical or an evocation of prejudice in order to pander to it. It is a political relic of Margaret Thatcher's onslaught against the traditional elites. Once the well-off classes who told us what to think were identified with the Right. Thatcherite populism, hijacking the politics of envy, re-painted the old elites in Leftist pink, and took up in more sinister tones the discourse about their effeteness, their contempt for democracy and their 'industries'.

But all that, of course, was in the mad 1980s. Things are greyer now. Ministers affect concern about the poor, and are nervous about offending the wise and well-entrenched. Judge Tumim, who would have been burned at the stake a few years ago, now goes around making us sorry for prisoners who get clean socks only every three weeks. The defeat of the campaign against the 'Aids industry' will be a victory of decency over boorishness and also a sign of the times.