Nia Griffith: “The next Labour government will maintain our nuclear deterrent”
Nia Griffith has held a firm line on Labour’s defence policy since becoming shadow secretary of state two years ago. But can she maintain the party’s support for Trident going forward? The MP for Llanelli talks MoD budgets, Gavin Williamson, Russia, nuclear deterrents and more with Matt Foster
Nia Griffith is two years into Labour’s top defence job, and while she remains the softly-spoken polar opposite of a bellicose military chief, there’s clearly a steely core to the Shadow Defence Secretary. After quitting Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench in the rebellious summer of 2016, she came back into the fold later that year and has hardly been a shrinking violet since taking on the difficult MoD brief.
The 52-year-old is now facing down her second Defence Secretary on behalf of the opposition – and she’s predictably scathing about Gavin Williamson’s time at the MoD. “You have to judge people by what they actually come up with and what they actually achieve during their time in office,” she says. “I have to say I do worry when this country is being represented by somebody who just tells Russia to ‘shut up and go away’. That’s not the sort of level that I’d like to see from any Secretary of State representing us.”
Griffith sits down with The House in her Portcullis House office just days after Williamson managed to prize an extra £1bn from the Treasury following intense lobbying from restive Conservative backbenchers. But it seems there’s little danger of the Shadow Defence team popping open the champagne anytime soon. “I’m sure that he will have been quick to tell everybody that he managed to get a bit of money in the Budget, but it’s a tiny amount,” she says.
The National Audit Office identified a £7bn hole in the MoD’s equipment budget last week. Griffith is highly critical of the ministry’s failure to set out a long-term plan to try and reduce its habit of spiralling costs on big projects. The much-heralded Modernising Defence Programme, which promised to get better value-for-money out of the MoD’s programmes, has been “kicked into the long grass,” she says. “It was expected last Easter, then it was by the Nato summit and then by the recess – and so we go on and on,” she adds. “We are now in November and we still don’t know when it’s going to see the light of day.”
Labour is meanwhile demanding a “root and branch” review of the way the MoD doles out defence deals, and Griffith tells us she is “horrified” at the department’s decision to hand Capita a £1.3bn contract to run the UK’s defence fire and rescue service just months after the collapse of fellow outsourcing giant Carillion. “What we’ve said is that you need those contracts to deliver and where they’re not delivering then you need to be prepared to terminate them – and we certainly are prepared to terminate them,” she says. Griffith is also on the Defence Secretary’s case about what she calls the recruitment “freefall” facing Britain’s armed forces – now estimated to be more than 8,000 personnel shy of the numbers they need.
As well as trying to land shots on the government, though, Griffith has also ducked her fair share of friendly fire since taking on the shadow defence gig. In recent months she’s sparred with a spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn – who himself once described Nato as a “danger to world peace” – over the longstanding military alliance’s actions on the Russian border, and raised eyebrows when she said MPs “may well” have voted to back airstrikes in Syria if given the chance.
The Shadow Defence Secretary has also held firm on Labour’s backing for the controversial multi-billion-pound Trident nuclear deterrent, despite the party now being led by a veteran of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – making clear that she would consider resigning if the position changed.
The debate around Trident burst into the open again last month when the SNP’s Westminster defence spokesman Stewart McDonald told this magazine his party would be willing to prop up a minority Labour government at the next election if Corbyn pledged the ditch the project.
Was Griffith at all tempted to accept the olive branch from the Scottish nationalists? “Quite frankly the SNP should focus a bit more on the shambles that they have made of running the Scottish government, rather than any imaginary coalition deal that is just not going to happen,” she hits back. “We are ready to fight the next election whenever it comes, and we will be campaigning to win a Labour majority. In fact, there are quite a few seats in Scotland that the SNP should be very worried about.
“In any case, I can assure you that the next Labour government will deliver the Dreadnought programme and maintain our nuclear deterrent because it is very clearly our party policy to do so.”
It’s not just the SNP gunning for Trident, though – the nuclear deterrent has plenty of Labour critics too. Indeed, a member of Griffith’s own shadow defence team, Fabian Hamilton, is currently working on a “defence diversification” strategy which he has said could help convince the party’s trade union supporters to think again on the nukes programme. Spelling out the thinking behind his review, the Leeds North East MP told The Yorkshire Post last month: “I have always said party policy says we should renew Trident, but I say we should scrap it. That is also the view of the leader of the party.”
Griffith is adamant, however, that Hamilton’s work will not lead to a shift in Labour’s position. She tells us that the party’s Trident policy and the review being done by the Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament are “two separate issues”, with Hamilton focused on making sure there are “different types of employment” in areas that have traditionally been relied on one big industry. “On the nuclear deterrent, we are very clear as a party that we are supporting the renewal of Trident,” she says. “It is absolutely part of our policy to keep the deterrent. And that is our settled policy. And that was in our manifesto last year, which was agreed by everybody.”
Griffith, who has represented the Welsh steel town of Llanelli since 2005, adds: “On the issue of industrial diversification, quite clearly those of us who come from areas which have been very dependent on industries such as steel or coal want to make sure that going forward, in our regions across the UK, we have better redistribution of wealth but also better redistribution of opportunity.”
So, she doesn’t see the review as an attempt to reopen the Trident debate? “They’re two separate things. They’re two completely separate issues. And in terms of do we want a nuclear deterrent? Yes, we do. That is our clear policy.”
If Labour’s current position on Trident is motivated in part by worries over the future of defence jobs, Griffith is also clear that there are times when those concerns will have to take a backseat.
The UK’s longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks following the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Despite ever-shifting explanations from Riyadh about the circumstances surrounding the Washington Post columnist’s death, by the time The House meets the Shadow Defence Secretary it’s become clear that the Kingdom has serious questions to answer.
Griffith believes a much wider rethink of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is now needed, with Labour pressing for all arms sales to the kingdom to be halted pending “a proper UN investigation” of the three-year, Saudi-led war in Yemen.
“At the end of the day what really matters is getting a peaceful solution in Yemen, stopping the conflict and stopping the appalling suffering that we’ve all seen,” she says of a war that has killed at least 10,000 people and left millions more facing famine. “We’ve been very clear for a long time that we would like the UK to take a much firmer line on this.”
Critics of suspending military sales to Saudi Arabia, however, point out that scores of British jobs depend on defence exports to the kingdom. The Department for International Trade estimates that military goods sold to the Gulf state were worth some £1.129bn last year alone.
So, would Labour be willing to stick to its principles on Saudi Arabia even if the defence industry has to take a hit? “Look, we have a world-class defence industry, and we are clearly in the lead in many, many fields and we’re very proud of that industry,” Griffith says. “We have good customers around the world. But when something of a specific nature that we find completely unacceptable is going on, then quite clearly, we can say, ‘look, that wouldn’t be the right place to export these arms to at this particular time.’”
Somewhere in a parallel universe roams Nia Griffith the languages teacher, with the Dublin-born Shadow Defence Secretary spending the first part of her career helping comprehensive school kids master their Italian, French and Spanish.
But it seems old habits die hard, with Griffith recently treating visitors from France’s defence college to an entire address in their native tongue. Were they bowled over by this rare bit of cultural outreach from a British politico? “Sadly! UK politicians aren’t really renowned for good language skills,” Griffith says. “We expect absolutely everybody to speak English, don’t we?”
The House suspects there’s a serious edge to this bit of cultural diplomacy, though. Almost a century after the guns fell silent on the Western Front, Griffith is clearly worried that the world is at risk of retreating back to a beggar-thy-neighbour approach to international affairs – with grave consequences for defence. “The resurgent Russia is very, very problematic,” she says, before training her fire on Vladimir Putin. “This is a man who wants to show off, who has a despicable regime at home, where any form of opposition is dealt with in a very severe manner, where clearly the economy is failing. And in order to prove himself to his people, Putin feels he has to show what a strong man he is in other ways. That seems to include all sorts of acts of bravado, basically taunting the West and trying to say – can I get away with this?”
At the same time, Griffith – who visited the battlefields at Passchendaele last summer and will spend Armistice weekend attending a string of events to mark the centenary – worries that old friends are becoming unreliable.
The much-vaunted ‘special relationship’ with the United States is, she warns, increasingly at risk because of the “complete unpredictability” of a President who prefers to tear up complex agreements with a 280-character broadside. “Normally you would do preparation in advance, you would have diplomatic talks, lots of things would go on behind the scenes,” Griffith says. “Instead, we have threats coming out on Twitter.”
Faced with what she sees as this growing leadership vacuum in world affairs, Griffith believes there’s never been a more important time for Britain to “step up” and “take a much more proactive role on the world stage” – particularly as the country prepares to sever its official ties with the European Union.
“We need to re-emphasise the alliances that we do have,” she says. “We may be leaving the EU, but we certainly, absolutely want to stay in Nato. Nato is the cornerstone of our defence policy. It is absolutely vital that we are working alongside all the countries in Nato to ensure a peaceful world – and that has to be our first and foremost priority.”
That need to build bridges and work to preserve the peace will, Griffith says, be at the top of her mind as she marks 100 years since the end of the Great War this weekend. “The centenary is an opportunity for us to reflect, to come together and to recognise what has happened in the past and the people who have given their lives for our country,” she says. “It’s also an opportunity to try and redouble our efforts to do everything we can to resolve things by diplomatic means in the future.”