This week, the news broke that Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson had been identified as the source of a leak from the National Security Council, and had been fired from the government.
The BBC reported on Theresa May’s decision to axe her Defense Secretary of 18 months having found “compelling evidence suggesting [his] responsibility for the unauthorized disclosure.” Subsequent to his sacking, and facing calls for a full inquiry into what happened, the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, has said “the PM considered the matter closed.”
But this matter is far from closed.
Mr Williamson denies that he leaked anything, and said in his response letter to the PM, “I strenuously deny that I was in any way involved in this leak and I am confident that a thorough and formal inquiry would have vindicated my position.” He continued, “I have always trusted my civil servants, military advisers and staff. I believe the assurances they have given me.”
This is a situation that needs some close examination. The first thing to note is the difference between the accusation and the defense. May says there is compelling evidence suggesting Williamson did it. Williamson says he’s confident neither he nor his staff did it. Why is Williamson mentioning his staff, when May does not?
Then there’s also May’s use of the word “suggesting” Williamson was responsible. She was not so bold as to say she had definitive proof, and so this is not a move based on facts beyond reasonable doubt. Now, it would be incorrect to say that removing someone from Government should require the same standard of proof that a court would need, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
But this situation is far bigger than a single leaked sentence from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting. This situation is part of an extraordinary series of events that show a deeply concerning pattern of behavior from the British government, as they seek to court favor from the totalitarian and authoritarian Chinese regime.
Mr Williamson has been an MP since 2010 and served as Secretary of State for Defense since November 2017. His voting record is largely in line with the Tory party as a whole. Here’s an outline of his voting record to give you a sense of who Gavin Williamson is:
He has almost always voted against equality, human rights, and particularly gay rights. He’s against the right-to-die movement. He voted against investigations into the Iraq War. He voted against a right to remain for EU nationals already in the UK. He voted consistently for more bombing of ISIS. He’s voted for the ‘bedroom tax’, for reduced welfare and disability benefits. He’s voted for increasing taxes on alcohol, not taxing bankers’ bonuses, restricting trade union activity and increasing university tuition fees.
This piece is not really about Williamson or an attempt to exonerate him. I have no idea whether or not Williamson was the source of the leak. This is about the UK Government cosying up to a despotic regime, ignoring security services across the Western world and prioritising its relationship with China above national security. It’s a grim irony that it’s a leak from the NSC that confirms all this.
Alarm bells ringing
What should tell you that something fishy has happened is the fact that Williamson was just dismissed. If he shared information from the NSC, he has breached the Official Secrets Act, which is a criminal offense. If he didn’t do it, he should keep his job.
Put another way, either he’s committed a very serious crime and losing his job isn’t enough, or he’s innocent and should have the chance to clear his name. Firing him and saying “that’s the end of it” isn’t enough in either case.
What seems instead to be the case is that the Prime Minister doesn’t like Gavin Williamson. In her letter she states that the other NSC attendees “have all answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible to assist with the investigation, and encouraged their staff to do the same. Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others.” (emphasis my own).
If this sounds vaguely sinister it’s because it is. I’m reminded of the enforced clapping culture of North Korea, and the news that shortly after ascending to power, Kim Jong-Un had his uncle assassinated in order to shore up his own position. ‘Strong and stable’ May has certainly looked in recent months like she’s in need of some shoring up, and a move to rid herself of a half-hearted cheerleader may well simply be theatrics to show she’s a ‘tough’ leader.
We had a Defense Secretary who had never really broken ranks, who was well liked by the armed forces, who vehemently denied being the source of the leak and backed his whole team (unprompted), but didn’t throw his heart into the investigation with the fervor required – and so has gotten the chop.
The leaked information and why it matters
The thing is, this whole Williamson sham is distracting the country from the much more important point. Let’s remember what was actually leaked. The leak all-but confirmed that Huawei will play an integral role in providing telecommunications infrastructure for the U.K., most notably in delivering new 5G networks. According to the BBC, a decision on this matter was due at the end of spring.
Our 5G network will be a big deal. Smartphones have become ubiquitous. For the vast majority of people, their smartphone is hardly ever out of arm’s reach and is always connected, whether by Wi-Fi or 4G. These networks are powerful. Your 4G connection sends and receives data at incredible speed – every call, text, web visit, app download, everything is handled by encoded data being sent back and forth between your phone and your network provider. But more than that, using methods like triangulation from phone masts, your wireless carrier can track your location even when your GPS is turned off. 5G will be even more capable than current 4G infrastructure, and is therefore an even greater risk.
This leak and the confirmation of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G infrastructure are therefore big news, and for two main reasons. First, the decision flies in the face of advise from allied governments across the Western world, including the US which is lobbying the world to ditch the Chinese phone-maker from any upcoming infrastructure projects. Given President Trump’s current schlong-off with China and the trade war/vanity project he’s implemented, you may take that with a grain of salt. But it’s not just the US that is against Huawei’s involvement. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Australia and more – the list of countries banning the company’s involvement in projects is ever growing.
But secondly, and more importantly, it’s the latest confirmatory piece of evidence that shows just how far the UK is willing to go to cosy up to China.
China has been a major investor in the UK for the last decade. Did you know, for instance, that Heathrow, Thames Water, Harvey Nichols, Pizza Express, Hamleys, House of Fraser and even the National Grid – all ostensibly British operations – are owned or part-owned by Chinese investors?
China between 2005 and 2015 invested £30 billion into the UK. In 2017 it invested another £30 billion in a single year.
Former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne famously sought Chinese investment for just about everything going, and that trend has only continued under the present Conservative government.
Enough context, what’s the problem
This all matters because the issue at hand is an actual issue of national security. Many of Britain’s allies have raised concerns that Huawei is, behind the scenes, putting countries at risk of spying and sabotage. The allegation is that Huawei is controlled by the Chinese government. Huawei denies this, but realistically in China everything is controlled by the government.
Let’s not lose focus on what China is. China is the nation of the ill-fated Tiananmen Square protests. It has strict censorship on information with the ‘Great Firewall of China’. It has the largest network of facial recognition technology on the planet, and is using it to implement a ‘social scoring’ system to automatically punish citizens for non-criminal offenses. Most egregiously, China currently has tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims held in internment – sorry, ‘re-education’ – camps. People in China can ‘go missing’ for referring to President Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh.
This is not normal. This is not the behavior of the kind of regime we want to be inviting to build crucial infrastructure in the UK, especially against the advice of allies like the US and Canada.
Cyber warfare, whether it’s direct hacking or more indirect tactics like election meddling, is commonplace in the modern world. It’s the main form of antagonism between super powers in the modern era. So allowing a foreign power with a history of egregious human rights violations to build vital infrastructure is like handing over the keys to businesses and citizens’ data.
This is all information that the National Security Council of all entities will be very aware of. The public should be demanding answers over and above the veracity of the allegations against Gavin Williamson. We should be demanding a full and independent inquiry into the depths of the UK government’s relationship with China. Are we allowing Huawei unfettered access to the UK’s personal and commercially sensitive information so as to appease their government and continue to generate investment? Is this a reactionary panic move to try and keep foreign investment in the UK buoyant in the face of Brexit’s already damaging effects?
The public need answers. Sadly, this government seems less than willing to give them.