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Tobias Ellwood: “Britain should be stepping forward onto the international stage more vigorously”

12 min read

Tobias Ellwood’s upbringing instilled a sense of duty to serve his country. Having gone through the transition of life in the Armed Forces to ‘Civvy Street’ 20 years ago, what more does he think the government can do to support veterans? And 100 years on from the end of the First World War, is Britain ready for the threats she now faces? The Defence Minister speaks to Sebastian Whale

The cries that followed the loud crash were the first giveaway. “These were not screams of pain... these were screams of shock,” Tobias Ellwood said of the commotion emanating from Westminster Bridge.

Panic-stricken members of the public rushed past as the crackling of gunshots reverberated around the Houses of Parliament. Arriving on the estate, Ellwood saw two people dying on the cobbled road in New Palace Yard. He ran to help officers tending to one of their own, PC Keith Palmer.

Ellwood knew all too intimately the risk that he was taking. His brother, Jonathan, died in a secondary attack during the 2002 bombings in Bali. But, he told an inquest in September, his immediate concern was for the badly wounded person before him.

The minister was branded a hero for his actions during the Westminster attack on 22 March 2017, and later appointed to the Privy Council. A picture of Ellwood, his face marked with blood after trying to resuscitate PC Palmer, became a symbol of defiance in the wake of the atrocities committed by terrorist Khalid Masood.

The sense of duty that inspired Ellwood to act was no flash in the pan. Its origins go back many years earlier.


Procter & Gamble was one of the various businesses that were tapping up Ellwood for a job. Newly graduated and having served as Student Union President at Loughborough University, he was a man in demand. But after taking the Officers’ Training Corps while studying in the late eighties, he had already decided what he wanted to do next. Sandhurst awaited.

It was at the military academy where Ellwood advanced his leadership and teamwork skills. He also learnt enduring lessons about his tolerance and character. In 1991, he joined the Royal Green Jackets. He served in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia. He joined the Reserves in 1996 (where he remains to this day) after reaching the rank of Captain.

Ellwood, 52, is a svelte but imposing figure at more than six feet. He rolls up the sleeves of his crisp white shirt as he takes a seat at a beige meeting table in his ministerial office on the fifth floor of the Ministry of Defence.

The move back to civilian life was very different 20 years ago. After notifying his seniors of his imminent departure, Ellwood was given “all the menial jobs”. “You weren’t necessarily treated in a way that might inspire you to want to return,” he adds.

That experience drives the defence minister as he helps formulate policy on supporting veterans as they – to use the lingo – return to ‘Civvy Street’.

“It’s changed an awful lot since my day. We didn’t really focus on these things. We just said, ‘thank you very much’ and off you went. There was a small transition course of a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t what we have today,” he says.

The softly-spoken Ellwood speaks effusively about the comradeship of the Armed Forces. “If you’re short of companionship, there was always somewhere to go to in any garrison, in any base. And then the opportunity to travel and do things with your unit that becomes your family essentially was absolutely incredible,” he says.

“So, I’m very conscious when you leave that very familiar and secure environment what a challenge it can be for some people to step back into the civilian world.”

That assimilation into society is an emotive subject. It often conjures up images that Ellwood believes are unhelpful. “We suffer somewhat from perhaps a perception that if you’ve served you somehow might be damaged,” he says. “One of my absolute commitments is to try and change the surround.”

Ellwood notes that veterans are less likely to have mental health issues, less likely to go to prison and less likely to take their own life than fellow citizens.

“We need to make sure that people know that,” he says. The existing stereotypes, Ellwood suggests, are due to “the movies that we watch” and the “success of charities in promoting images”.

“Ninety per cent of those who do the transition process that we have are in education or in a job within six months of leaving. And that’s great news, but we need to communicate that further,” he continues.

“I should add that of the proportion of people that do require help for no fault of their own, we need to make sure help is available.”

Ellwood points to the Veterans Gateway, a government initiative that brings together “the myriad of support areas” for ex-soldiers. There are more than 400 main service-facing charities currently in operation, which makes it difficult to discern where best to find help, he argues.

On recruitment and retention, Ellwood says the MoD must find new ways to sell a career in the military and communicate its transferable attributes such as leadership, teamwork, determination, grit, tenacity and educational opportunities.

But could former soldiers’ employment prospects be affected by current perceptions regarding their wellbeing?

“Completely. You could have this attitude where an employer who’s not familiar with the Armed Forces, they may say, ‘two people, one has served in the Armed Forces, are they going to go doolally on me?’

“We need to kill that attitude because it’s decidedly untrue and unhelpful. We’re doing a lot of work with employers themselves, with businesses and organisations, so they can see the value of that,” he says, citing the MoD-backed resettlement service provider, the Career Transition Partnership.

In a letter to the Sunday Times, six former heads of the Armed Forces argued that Britain should be ashamed of its neglect of war veterans’ mental health after the paper revealed that 42 former or current service personnel are believed to have taken their own lives this year.

“I’ve invited them in because I think they perhaps aren’t aware of what we’re doing. Let’s keep it in context, very sadly there are around 4,500-5,000 suicides a year. You are less likely to commit suicide if you serve in our Armed Forces. But, of course, every suicide is a tragedy and we need to understand the circumstances,” Ellwood says. The MoD is reviewing the cause of death, including rates of suicide among troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, which will be completed next year.

“Around fifty per cent of suicides – and I think this applies to civilian life as well – are completely unknown. Nobody has mentioned or said anything or shown any indication that something is actually wrong. That is quite tough to puncture through,” he argues.

“We are dealing with – this is the tough environment of the Armed Forces – very stoic, very proud individuals. There is a macho environment there, a real reluctance to put your hand up and say there is anything wrong with your mind.

“That is why last year we launched a brilliant strategy to change the stigma surrounded with mental health… Just like a knee injury – it should be treated the same, physical and mental should be treated the same.”

Many of Ellwood’s Conservative colleagues have been up in arms at the prospect of former soldiers being investigated over killings during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as agreed at Stormont House in 2014. Ellwood says it is “obviously very concerning” that people who served 40 years ago could “have their door knocked on” as part of the Historical Investigations Unit’s review.

“I absolutely share the concerns from my colleagues and I know that [Northern Ireland Secretary] Karen Bradley’s looking at a solution that can actually take us forward. We do need to resolve this, we do need to eventually draw a line on this. But we mustn’t allow that to affect the wider positive outcome of where Northern and Southern Ireland have actually gone, which is actually quite important,” he adds.


Ellwood was born in New York. One of three children, he went to schools in Bonn, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. His father was a diplomat in the United Nations, and his mother a senior lecturer and teacher. He describes his upbringing as internationalist but says he never overlooked his British roots.

Members of Ellwood’s family served in the First World War. As the nation prepares to commemorate the end of the conflict, he reflects on how an “entire generation stepped forward”. “There’s the bravery, there’s the absolute fortitude of us defending our values, our way of life. And indeed, what they did then helped to shape the world that we can actually still see today.”

Ellwood, who is fresh (figuratively speaking) from a trip to Sydney for a meeting of the Five-Eyes nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA and the UK), says work is being done on how Britain honours its troops, pointing to the introduction of Veterans ID cards.

“The reverence and respect that we have in this country is no different than anywhere else. The practical application of that is very different in the States. For example, an airline will invite veterans to embark the plane first of all. We are moving that way,” he says.

Britons’ reserved approach stems in part from “limited” exposure to the military in the latter half of the 20th Century, he continues.

“We had the IRA threats and that prevented what would happen before – people walking down the Mall in uniform around London or indeed anywhere – you couldn’t do that. Whereas in the States, you do any movement and that movement of an individual wearing their uniform is an advertisement. Little kids will look up at that,” he says.

He adds: “We still need to recruit from the general population. So, it’s important that we promote a very positive message about what can be achieved by serving.”

Ellwood worked for former defence secretary Tom King, now Lord King, after leaving the military. After deciding that he wanted to enter politics, he had a choice of which side of the pond to try. Given that he didn’t “own a small oil rig” (come from sizeable means), he concluded it was more prudent to try on these shores.

But why did he pick the Conservatives? “Good question, actually,” Ellwood says revealingly. “The sense of entrepreneurship, the sense of duty of the individual was quite important to me. We are fortunate in the UK that – today it might be different with Jeremy Corbyn – normally there is not a huge amount of difference between one party and another as to where they will take the direction of the country. The tiller isn’t knocked so violently one way or another as we see in other countries. Life goes on.

“We are still outward looking, we still have a free-market, liberal economic approach to the world. We very much welcome and engage with the world around us. And that happens no matter whichever [party] is in charge. Nato was formed actually under a Labour government, for example.”

Ellwood was elected MP for Bournemouth East in 2005. He was appointed Foreign Office Minister under David Cameron in the Coalition before moving to the MoD in the summer of 2017.

We meet an hour before the Budget, where Philip Hammond announces an extra £1bn for defence over the next year.

“I very much believe Britain has a higher purpose on the international stage, particularly with the world becoming perhaps more dangerous and more complex and we need to aspire to do that,” Ellwood says.

“Ever fewer nations have that ability to shape the world around us and we’re very fortunate to be in that case. I suppose I have a worry that we could be losing that ability if we don’t continue to invest, with the challenges we face as the Prime Minister has spoken about – the erosion of the rules-based order.”

Does he mean invest with resources or energy? “It’s the hard power but it’s not that, it’s the commitment to being able to seek the solutions,” he says.

He continues: “I absolutely believe that we should be stepping forward onto the international stage more vigorously.”

Ellwood says that the government carried out a National Security Capability Review in March as looming threats were “pretty fresh” – and believes Britain must play a role in modernising global institutions.

“We’ve got a UN that isn’t able to use its Security Council, for example, because two of the aggressors in some form or another can veto things,” he explains.

“What’s happening in the South China Sea is unacceptable. That’s why we sent HMS Albion through there just to confirm this is international water.

“What we’re seeing with Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and elsewhere – and also the Novichok issue – is them blatantly breaking the international norms in Britain.

“We need ways of being able to stand up to this. But how do you punish the state on that? It’s all sub-Article 5 [of the Nato Treaty]. It’s not triggering a mass response. There are no rules written because all the rules were written just after the Second World War. The methods that are being utilised today didn’t apply in those days.

“I would like to see Britain look at what we can do to help modernise these Bretton Woods organisations that have served well but are now looking a little out of date.”

Like his relatives a century ago, Ellwood has seen first-hand the modern-day threats Britain faces – and argues the UK must react accordingly.

“We need to respond. In our response, it needs to be international. The First World War was a great example; we didn’t do that alone,” he says.

“There are certainly things that we can do to bolster our own defence mechanisms. A lot of this isn’t going to be in conventional format. It’s going to be on the internet, it’s going to be the traffic lights being hit in the financial areas, it’s going to be a nuclear power station suddenly switching off and not working and affecting the grid. It’s these sorts of things that we’re going to see.

“The way the world is changing in the next ten years is going to be astonishing.

“However, the negative sides of that, of swarm drones and so forth, we do need to think carefully about how we’re able to respond to this very, very changing world. Otherwise, we will become ever subservient to the new order.”  

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