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?
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.
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