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Gavin Williamson: It’s time for Britain to adopt a more “assertive” posture on the world stage

6 min read

Gavin Williamson tells a BAE fringe at Conservative party conference that having a "forward-leaning presence is incredibly important"

There is a risk of Britain taking “the eye off the ball” in the fight against Daesh by focussing too much on the threat posed by Russia, the Defence Secretary has said.

Speaking at a BAE event at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson said that while Russia poses “a very significant threat” to the United Kingdom, we must not “underestimate the continued challenge that we face in areas such as dealing with Daesh in Syria”. “There is a risk of us taking the eye off the ball there,” he added.

Williamson argued that British military involvement in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was about keeping the UK “safe at home”. “We’ve not always been good enough at getting that message across to the public,” he said. “As politicians, we’ve got to be much more forward-leaning in explaining it to the public. It’s far better to deal with the threats such as Daesh in Syria or Iraq than trying to deal with it on the streets here in the United Kingdom.

“Having that forward-leaning presence and being willing to deal with those issues in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan is incredibly important.”

Reflecting on UK involvement in coalition strikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Williamson said that the faction has seen its territory “massively reduced”. “But we shouldn’t be complacent, because while their territory has reduced… we can’t actually let up,” he said.

“The idea that there will be a moment where Daesh has completely gone and is never going to be a problem again is something that is probably not going to happen. We constantly have to bring the fight to them, because there are those fanatics who wish to do us harm and while we deprive them of so much territory, they will disperse.

“We will continue to reduce the amount of territory they have, we will continue to hunt them, we will try and eliminate that threat in every way that we possibly can do. But we have to be conscious that that threat might raise its head elsewhere.

“You are seeing them looking at different parts of the world and dispersing around Syria and Iraq. So, the fight, I’m afraid, will sadly go on.”

Williamson was speaking during a fringe event on the future challenges in defence, hosted by Sky News’ chief political correspondent Jon Craig.

When asked to list two achievements he would like to be his legacy in the Ministry of Defence, Williamson identified ensuring a “proper stable footing for our Armed Forces” with the “right capabilities that are well-financed” and have the correct equipment.

“The other thing that I want to do is achieve a bit more of a strategic change. I think for quite a number of years, especially since Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has held back a little bit,” he said.

“I want to change our posture. I want us to be more assertive. I want the world to look at us and realise that when Britain says something, it doesn’t just say it, actually it has the ability to back it up with deeds. The best way to avoid any form of conflict is to make sure we invest in defence make sure that we have that forward, proper defensive posture.

“That puts off people from causing problems and issues in the future, it acts as that deterrent. Those are the two legacies I would like to do.”

Referring to this year’s Modernising Defence Programme, Williamson said Britain faces state-based threats from the likes of Russia – and the country must now adapt accordingly.

On the events in Salisbury this year, he commented: “Russia has used a nerve agent on British soil. That is a hostile act. Russia needs to act in a responsible way that is befitting of a nation that sits on the United National Security Council as a permanent member. We were joined by multiple other nations in expelling diplomats, because the world recoiled in horror at what Russia did and they acted in unison with us. We showed the unity of our alliance, we showed the fact that we had many friends right around the world and the simple fact was that people did not believe that Russia should be allowed to act in the way that it did. Russia has to recognise that.”

He also sought to set out Britain’s place in the world post-Brexit and began by asserting that “our commitment to European security is a long lasting one”.

“I am incredibly optimistic… We have an incredibly proud history, but sometimes we are almost constantly making apologies for our past and we should be much more proud of what we have done in the past and what we have achieved,” he said, listing the UK’s role in Nato as part of his argument.

The Defence Secretary continued: “We will embrace and we’re going to be involved in European security because the cornerstone of European security is not the European Union, it is Nato. Let’s be absolutely clear. Our involvement in Nato is going to be there, long, enduring and for many, many defence secretaries after me.”

On the question of the UK’s continued involvement in the EU’s Galileo project, he said: “Let’s not get sucked into this idea that if we’ve been signed up to a project such as Galileo we are going to continue with it regardless even if we get a bad deal. That is not sensible. That is not what we’re going to do. Frankly, we can do that project on our own, we can make it happen, we can make it work far better than any other European country and that’s what we’ll do.”

Referring to how the MoD is upgrading the UK’s defence capabilities, Williamson said that it is a “bit of a mistake” to talk about cyber as “separate from everything else”. “We need to start changing people’s understanding of how cyber will be used. It won’t be in isolation, it’s got to be used across all three services, every serviceman using it, defending against the enemy,” he said.

“We shouldn’t just be looking at the cyber debate, we need to be looking at the space debate. Space I think will be even more significant than cyber over the longer term. Cyber though is very important.”

After fielding his last question during the hour-long event, Williamson argued: “Defence matters to the British people. The three best brands in this country: the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force. They are the best brands, not just in Britain, but right around the world.

“The British people love them and value them. When we’re protecting them, when we’re defending them, I think they will give us credit and recognition for that.”

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