Under the Tories, expertise has been replaced by a phoney test of patriotism | Nesrine Malik

As Mary Beard found, EU sympathies are a disqualifier for senior public roles. This authoritarianism must be challenged

If the period between the referendum and leaving the EU was when the seeds of a new political culture were sown, the season since the general election last December is when they have borne fruit. Downing Street’s consolidation exercise has not only extended to the purging of ministers who refuse to become vassals of No 10. It has weaponised the Brexit mandate it received by in effect turning the EU into a loyalty test. Based on who passes it, the Tories can then impose limitations on who has the right to assume government-vetted jobs, and how those jobs are fulfilled.

In an episode right out of a cold war movie, last week it emerged that classics scholar Mary Beard was blocked by Downing Street from becoming a British Museum trustee last year. Whitehall sources told the Observer the decision was made because of Beard’s pro-European views, ones that she had felt free to express on social media and are shared by half the country. But the country in which she lives has changed. The social media walls have ears. A Kremlin-style monitoring of those with EU sympathies stalks public figures. Whether her views have any bearing on her ability to do the job is neither here nor there.

Even the job of protecting the public has been affected. The coronavirus outbreak too has fallen victim to the obsession with blocking anything EU-related, no matter whether it could cost lives. Downing Street is now locked in a row with the Department of Health over access to the EU pandemic early warning system. No 10 is allegedly preventing the department from attending meetings with EU officials to coordinate a response to the crisis. The reason for this reckless politicisation of a medical emergency is that it would risk giving the EU leverage in negotiations. Strengthening Britain’s position against the EU will happen literally over our dead bodies.

Soon, there will no criteria for how a public interest role is filled other than the candidate’s fealty and acquiescence to the control centre of a government that has put ideological loyalty above professional ability.

Dominic Cummings listens to a press conference in Downing Street
‘He and Cummings have built a team around themselves that is more fortress than government.’ Photograph: Frank Augstein/AFP via Getty Images

Consider Alok Sharma, the secretary of state for business and new, UK-appointed president of the vital UN climate conference in Glasgow at the end of this year. Yet he has voted against setting decarbonisation targets, and has opposed incentives for renewable energy, and requiring the energy industry to have a carbon capture and storage strategy. Under Johnson’s government of vassals, the ability to do a job well seems to have become a disqualifying feature, lest someone’s vocational excellence and integrity undermine their pliancy.

It was only a matter of time before “having enough of experts” turned into blocking those experts from doing their jobs – whether to make our lives safer, or our cultural life richer. It’s hard to keep up with all the ways the country’s political culture has deteriorated over the relatively short period since the referendum. The language of betrayal and treachery, at first a shock on the front pages that pronounced British judges “enemies of the people”, quickly became normalised as the withdrawal agreement negotiations turned into a sort of war re-enactment. Brexit became not a matter of bloodless negotiation with a large trading bloc, where both parties naturally wanted to maximise their positions, but an exercise in national chest-thumping as EU technocrats looked on bemused.

The false binary of British or European was created. A new traitor, the “citizen of nowhere”, was identified. If they were not 100% with us, they must be against us. Britain prevailing and making a success of Brexit became a matter of believing, of having faith in your country: even the act of questioning or worrying about the future became suspect.

Some of it we can laugh at. Nonsense about “patriotic breakfasts” the British negotiating team ate this month before talks began reveals only the juvenile pettiness of Tory HQ. We can be almost entertained by the awkward patriotic virtue-signalling of Conservative MPs sipping good old English cuppas. Rishi Sunak, of Winchester, Oxford and Stanford, and only recently of Yorkshire when he became an MP just five years ago, tweeted a picture of himself with the caption: “Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew.”

But the rest isn’t funny. And any hope that it would subside with the delivery of Brexit, that the fever would break once it became clear that there was no conspiracy to thwart the “will of the people”, has disappeared with Johnson’s new government. In fake “patriot games”, he and Cummings have built a team around themselves that is more fortress than government, in a party that has barricaded itself against the country and against Europe.

We should call things what they are. As we slip further into a dark timeline, being pro-EU is no longer simply a defunct remain position, it is a way for the Tories to sort people into us and them. This is authoritarianism. And it has to be challenged.

We ignore culture-war skirmishes at our peril. Every flag-waving gimmick, every stunt, every media swipe at an elected “bureaucrat” for doing their job leads to this. It is no longer limited to a conflict between leavers or remainers, or internecine scuffles within the government itself. Loyalty tests are now determining whether we receive vital information from our closest neighbours on a pandemic, and who sits on the boards of public institutions. They may seem like separate isolated, containable incidents. But that’s what we always say about the first stages of a spreading virus.

• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

• This article was amended on 12 March 2020 to remove an incorrect reference to Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.

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Nesrine Malik

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