There was standing room only for Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, in conversation with Mark Wallace, Executive Editor of ConHome.
Wallace began by congratulating Wallace “on his excellent choice of surname”. But for the avoidance of doubt, while the Defence Secretary will continue to be known in this report as Wallace, the second Wallace will be referred to as ConHome.
Wallace had hastened back from the funeral of Jacques Chirac, where he found himself next to Vladimir Putin and a contingent from the FSB, the Russian security service, “all sorts of people I’ve seen in Kremlin mugshots”.
During the conversation he confirmed that he has abandoned the zero tolerance approach to drug use by members of the British armed forces, introduced by his predecessor.
And he also showed why he is not one of the better known members of the Cabinet. Instead of chasing headlines, he gives sober, thoughtful replies.
ConHome began by asking if the 21st century is turning into an age of empires – the EU, China and so forth.
Wallace said the world is not dividing into empires, but into groups with different values. We belong to the group of “those who believe in the rule of law, tolerance and democracy”.
In the field of defence, he added, there is a second dividing line: “There are those that do and those that don’t, and it’s not purely about money.”
Nor is it purely about size: “There are countries like Latvia that are absolute doers.” Those who are willing to act form alliances, for example the Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes countries such as Finland, Sweden and Holland as well as the United Kingdom.
ConHome: “Are our current international institutions fit for purpose?”
Wallace: NATO has “got continually to refresh itself and reform”, and we “have continually to ask whether it’s worth it and what it’s for”, for the commitment under Article Five to mutual defence means giving away a measure of our sovereignty.
ConHome observed that Brexiteers want to know how inextricably committed we already are to EU defence forces.
Wallace described this as “a lawyers’ debate” about whether UK contributions to European defence make us subject to EU law. We need to be “exactly sure whether we will be locked in or not”.
But he pointed out that “the security of Europe is very important to the UK” and we have to contribute towards it.
In practice, what one gets is “an international coalition of the willing”, as in the Straits of Hormuz.
“Who is going to go to Kosovo? Who is going to go to the west coast of Africa? There aren’t many countries that do.”
Security works as a partnership. French and German intelligence has stopped a number of plots in this country, and intelligence we have gathered has helped them to prevent plots.
It makes sense for our forces to work with the French in Mali, in order to help stem the flow of migrants who will end up at the English Channel.
Added to this, our aerospace industry needs European co-operation and European customers. The Typhoon, being built in Lancashire, is a European construct.
We need to have a sovereign capability in some areas – for example, nuclear submarines – but we also have a duty to give our armed forces the best kit: “I’ve been a soldier when our equipment didn’t work.”
It was “embarrassing” when our troops ended up with “very bad build quality” because domestic suppliers were shielded from competition.
Our armed forces also suffer when the Ministry of Defence tries to do more than it can pay for, and then makes savings by hollowing out various areas which it hopes will not be visible.
Above the surface, the public sees the new aircraft carriers, the Red Arrows, the military bands. But beneath the surface, there are poor recruitment, shortages of pilots and equipment which doesn’t always work.
We have “to cut our cloth and be honest with the public about our ambitions”. This he intends to do, though he knows “it’s not going to make me the most popular Defence Secretary”.
“It’s 20, 30 years of this we’ve had and the music is about to stop and someone’s going to open the parcel and it’s not funny.”
ConHome: “Do you have a message to the Russians?”
Wallace: “Yes, the same as to the Chinese. We’re British, we believe in fair play – international law is what we live our lives by.”
ConHome: “Are we going to hit our target for Army headcount?”
Wallace: “We had better.” He explained that in order to improve retention, the Army was becoming far more flexible in the way it treats people, and is adapting so that it reflects modern society: “My Sergeant Major would have a heart attack.”
ConHome wondered if this meant the zero tolerance approach to drug taking would be maintained.
Wallace said he has changed the policy: ” I took the view that some people are young and irresponsible and it should be up to their commanding officers to decide, whether it’s a young lad or girl who’s made a mistake, whether they should be allowed to remain in the armed forces or not.
“And people who have left and want to rejoin, the same should apply to them as well.”
A member of the audience suggested to applause that the Royal Navy has far too few ships.
Wallace maintained that however many ships we had, we would still need allies when it came to tasks such as patrolling the Straits of Hormuz. And for some purposes, an offshore patrol vessel would be adequate.
The questioner, indignant: “It’s got a pop gun on the front.”
But Wallace maintained that it was a question of working out what we need to be able to do: “Do you want us to forward base a Navy base in the Pacific?”