Nia Griffith: On interventionism – and why Labour cannot 'simply walk by on the other side'
Few policy areas have caused more problems for Labour in recent years than defence. But as the party’s fourth shadow defence secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, Nia Griffith is fighting to turn around the public’s perception. She talks to Sam Macrory about Nato, Trident and why Labour must have a real debate about interventionism
Italian, French, Spanish, German, a few words of Dutch, and Welsh too. There can’t be many Members of Parliament with the linguistic talents of Nia Griffith, but for Labour’s shadow defence secretary the challenge often appears to be making sure her work is not lost in translation.
For of the many contortions and compromises which the Labour Party has had to go through since Jeremy Corbyn was elected – for the first time - as its leader in the autumn of 2015, few policy areas have been as uncomfortable for the party as defence.
In his many years on the backbenches, Corbyn was a consistent critic of NATO, opponent of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and spoke out repeatedly against an interventionist approach to foreign policy, all positions which place him at odds with party policy and many of his MPs.
Griffith, 60, has been a Labour Party member since the early 1980s. As a student she embraced community politics, going on to serve on her local council in Wales, alongside her career in education, before becoming an MP for Llanelli in 2005. Last January, 21 years after telling her local community that she was gay, Griffith joined a photoshoot celebrating Parliament’s diversity after it “gradually occurred to me how invisible gay women still are.”
So no political novice then, nor an MP afraid to “stand up and be counted”, but the challenges of being Labour’s shadow defence secretary would test the most experienced of politicians. And Griffith has already walked away once, joining the wave of shadow cabinet resignations – she quit as shadow Welsh secretary – that followed last June’s EU referendum. So her frontbench comeback, in October, must have been something of a surprise?
“You take the challenges that come to you, don’t you?” Griffith replies, speaking to The House magazine in her Portcullis House quarters. “Clearly it wasn’t, perhaps, what I expected after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader for a second time. However, I think that it’s very important that we all pull together and we contribute in whatever way we can.”
Sitting on her shelves is a copy of the Joy of Tax by economist Richard Murphy, a Corbynista must-read from 2015, a suggestion that Griffith is willing to understand the leadership’s thinking. A collection of Dylan Thomas poetry also suggests an occasional need to take a mental escape to the valleys from the political debate. Other than Corbyn’s second leadership victory last September, what has changed to convince her to return? She insists there is “a huge amount of consensus across the Labour Party now in terms of the sorts of things that we want in our society” argues that while “it’s sometimes difficult that we have a wide range of views, in many ways it’s more honest with the electorate.”
For many voters, however, the wide range of views on defence will require clarity by the next time they head to the ballot box.
In Griffith’s few months in the post she has reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to Trident and to Nato, and was reportedly left “livid” when a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn contradicted her supportive comments on the deployment of British troops to Estonia. But while Clive Lewis was reportedly reshuffled after a heated bust-up over his backing for Trident, Griffith, though softly spoken, speaks with the confidence of a shadow minister who expects to stay put. Perhaps the Labour leadership has accepted that while losing one shadow defence secretary can be seen to be unfortunate, to lose a fourth – Griffith has followed Maria Eagle, Emily Thornberry and Lewis into the role – really could have looked rather careless.
A PPS to Harriet Harman during the final days of the last Labour government and a shadow business minster under Ed Miliband, Griffith’s defence experience was limited. “My interest comes from a foreign policy point of view,” she explains. In what way? “I did languages at university and I lived abroad. I dealt with EU issues, school programmes, European exchanges. Plus a strong understanding of issues to do with developing countries and Britain’s post-empire role in the world. Do I have a particular background with the forces? No I don’t. But like many of us I have tremendous respect for those in my community who have participated at any level in the armed forces.”
Emily Thornberry was working on a wide-ranging defence review before her move to shadow foreign secretary. The report was due after the referendum, but has yet to see the light of day. Has it been helpful reading for Griffith?
“The issue for me is that we work as part of that national policy forum”, she replies, suggesting that the report may not have crossed her desk. “There are some aspects of policy that we looked at last year. Those effectively have been framed as where we got to… and now we are looking at other aspects of policy.”
As for what is now being discussed, Griffith reveals that the party is taking a close look at the issue of Britain’s role in the world and “under what conditions do you intervene in a country.” Corbyn, of course, has consistently argued against interventionism, and was a major opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and argued against intervening in Syria in 2013.
Griffith, however, insists that the age of interventionism is not over.
“That discussion is very live in the party at the moment”, Griffith confirms. “How do we stop atrocities? We can quote examples where sometimes we felt we should have gone in a lot sooner – like Rwanda – or where nobody planned for the aftermath. It is a huge discussion. For us, as a Labour Party … we have to look clearly: if we see people in need then we want to do something about it. The same happens if we see people who are suffering atrocities. The question is how do you do that and how you do it effectively? It’s a question that is not going to go away. We’re not going to simply walk by on the other side. Sometimes it’s better to intervene early and quickly than to let things escalate.”
As part of her learning-on-the job experience, Griffith has taken trips to Estonia and Cyprus to meet the troops, with the visit to RAF Akrotiri prompting her to call for a “specific medal to recognise the work they are doing.”
She speaks with admiration about “hardwork and dedication of the crews… and the relentless nature” of their sorties: “Sometimes they are literally attacking Daesh suicide trucks as they hurtle towards Iraqi troops. This is specialist work and very demanding.”
If the trip to Cyprus passed without incident, her January visit to Estonia proved to be rather more eventful. After Griffith gave an interview on Forces TV to confirm Labour support for the deployment of 800 British troops as part of Nato’s effort to deter Russia from any “aggression”, a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn told reporters that “we don’t want to see… a ratcheting up of tensions between Russia and the west” and instead called for “talks and engagement to wind down military tensions.”
She refuses to reveal what happened in the talks with Corbyn that followed, simply saying that, “Jeremy Corbyn has always been willing to discuss issues.”
And willing to agree?
“And to accept that we have a clear position in the party and our position is very much that we support NATO.”
The outcome of those talks have clearly left Griffith with the conviction to reassert her views, as she stresses that “our enhanced forward presence” can “send a very clear signal to Russia that we are very unhappy about a number of different activities the Russians seem to be undertaking at the moment – in the cybersphere, obviously Ukraine – and yes we will use economic sanctions, and yes we are serious about it.”
That Labour spokesman had also suggested that while Article 5 [of the Nato treaty] says there has to be a response from Nato allies if a Nato country is attacked, “it doesn’t define what that response should be.”
Does Griffith understand Article 5 to mean a military response? “Absolutely,” she makes clear. “We stand by the NATO treaty which says that, of course, an attack against one is an attack against all. And so, absolutely, in NATO we use every means possible, using peaceful means first obviously, but if necessary one would escalate it to military means. It’s more important than ever that we reaffirm our full support for Nato… and that we send a clear message to Russia that we’re not going to put up with any nonsense.”
If the NATO line has required closed-door discussions, it was perhaps a surprise to the leadership that Lewis’ replacement as shadow defence secretary is just as vocal in her support of maintaining a nuclear deterrent. While Griffith had been outspoken against Trident in the past, didn’t anybody from Mr Corbyn’s office call to check out her views before her appointment?
“No….No,” Griffith reveals before insisting that “we have a firm party policy and I don’t see us changing the policy on trident in the foreseeable future.”
Trident, Griffith says, “was a topic for discussion for our National Policy Forum last year” and was “extensively looked at.” And, since then, “the party has reaffirmed its position which is firmly in support of Trident, and that is our party position and we’re sticking to that.”
Keeping Trident is one thing. Using it, quite another. Jeremy Corbyn’s first party conference as Labour leader was overshadowed after the Labour leader gave an interview to the BBC in which he said he would not press the nuclear button if called to do so. But would his shadow defence secretary?
“It’s absolutely vital that if you have a deterrent, you are prepared to use it - otherwise it’s not a deterrent,” Griffith makes clear. “Of course, nobody wants to reach that situation, and it’s very important that we have a strong defence policy, that we should act quickly, in a determined manner if we are attacked, or if we think there is potential for attack, so that we can nip things in the bud, But at the end of the day, ultimately it’s important to have an ultimate deterrent.”
Has she managed to extract a promise from Mr Corbyn to use it if required?
“It’s a clear party policy and that’s been agreed and it’s something people already….”
But is it the Labour leader’s policy? “Well, I mean, clearly Jeremy has his views on this but we are democratic party and we have a clear position.”
It sounds like another question that may yet return for Mr Corbyn. Brexit might dominate the political debate now, but come the general election campaign, in 2020 or before, will the Conservative Party dig out any past Corbyn quote on Trident, on Nato, on Russia, on military action…
“We in the Labour Party obviously have a lot to do in order to rebuild trust with the public,” Griffith admits when asked about the doorstep challenge. On defence issues? “On lots of issues. The polls show that we have a long way to go and it would be absurd of me to say otherwise, quite frankly.”
On defence, says Griffith, the Labour message must be that “many of the things that we talk about are two sides of the same coin”
What does she mean by that?
“Sometimes, perhaps, Jeremy might put it in a more… UN peacekeeping sort of context, but at the end of the day if we can ensure we do have security in those less stable parts of the world that in turn bolsters our defence here.”
Griffith quit the shadow cabinet because she thought Corbyn couldn’t provide unity. Has she changed her view?
Her answer focuses on the need to “be clear and disciplined and remember the important thing is to push forward policies that actually are for the good of the people in the country and hold the Tories to account when they are not doing so”, while she insists there “is a real willingness amongst Labour MPs and indeed amongst many party members to try to pull together, to try to do their very best.” It’s not quite an answer to the question.
Perhaps, not surprisingly given Labour’s polling, Griffith says her chosen way to relax is to “avoid political programmes.” And she switches off she likes to “run up mountains… basically try and do thing which give the brain a bit of rest.”
Perhaps he mountain-running is symbolic, as Griffith’s analysis of her party’s prospects sounds far from optimistic. “We do have a huge mountain to climb,” she admits. “That is just going to be hard slog, there is no quick fix”.
For the multilingual Nia Griffith, the challenge is to translate Labour’s often conflicting language on defence into something coherent by the time the next general election comes around.
Griffith on... Russia
“I think there’s a much greater unease amongst the British public now. We have seen a number of instances, even since 2015, where people have been quite shocked at the way that Russia has behaved. What are they doing sending a warship beeping around the cost of the UK? I mean, what is that about? There’s something rather strange about the behaviour and about a president who has this immense need to effectively create an external enemy. I think that is a major concern.”
Griffith on... the defence budget
“We’re very much committed to the 2% [target]. We have long track record of spending over 2% of GDP on defence, and we’re extremely concerned that the present government is now slipping and sliding by trying to include things which we didn’t include to make up that 2%: some UN peacekeeping money, military and civilian pensions. We are absolutely committed to making it a real 2% and we will need to examine very carefully what state the Conservative cuts leave our defences in, and we may need to increase that spending to make up the gaps.”
Griffith on... defence secretary Michael Fallon
“He’s a very professional politician and he understands the difference between things that are serious – on issues like national security we tend to have very civilised exchanges – and on the other hand we know that when it comes to election politics he can be as sharply political as anyone.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.