Obama’s drone warfare, Ashcroft on Cameron and the mystery of GQ’s absent editors

Robert Greenwald's documentary "Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars" is a work of ruthless propaganda - in the best sense. Meanwhile the purpose of Lord Ashcroft's planned biography is much less clear.

You are invited to read this free preview of the upcoming New Statesman, out now. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, including Bryan Appleyard's cover story on the decline of Apple, Rafael Behr's essay on "Milibandism" and the Labour leader's ideas, Alan Johnson's personal reflection on his family, and an archive piece from 1958 by Doris Lessing, plus our books of the year special - please visit our subscription page.

What does it do to a man’s soul to be a warrior in Barack Obama’s game of drone warfare, being holed up at a remote military base in the Nevada desert as you go about your business eliminating, at a mere touch of a button, the “enemy” in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen, as if you’re doing no more than playing the latest iteration of Call of Duty?

In Robert Greenwald’s documentary film Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, Brandon Bryant, a young US air force veteran, speaks with searing honesty about his experiences as a drones operator. He was trained to carry out attacks but was never prepared for how he might react to or feel about what he was doing – all that remote-controlled precision killing. He talks about one day watching on his console as a man, injured in a drone attack he initiated, bleeds to death: “He’s just, like, rolling around, but you can see, like, where his leg is missing and the blood is spurting out and landing on the ground and it’s cooling ...”

Bryant is a patriot and he believes in God – or, at least, did. “Doing this, I had to really think ... why was I here? Why am I doing this? I was pretty religious at the time and I went to talk to the chaplain ... under the orders of my commander, actually, and I got nothing out of it. He was just basically, like, ‘It’s God’s plan.’ It’s God’s fucking plan for people to die? Like, I don’t want to hear that shit. I didn’t feel like I was a part of anything good or wholesome or healthy or contributing to the greater good. I felt like I was destroying myself. I was taking who I pictured myself to be in my head and chopping it down and breaking it down, taking a sledgehammer to it. And it crumbled.”

Unmanned is a work of ruthless propaganda – in the best sense. It makes no attempt to contextualise or create space for opposing views. It’s not balanced or deliberative. It wants only to build a prosecutor’s case against Obama and America’s drone war and it does so with immense power and anger. Do watch it at: unmanned.warcosts.com.

Scratching the surface

I was intrigued to read that Lord Ashcroft is writing a biography of David Cameron, aided by Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times’s fragrant assassin. What could be the purpose of such a project? There’s already in print a more than adequate biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning, the most recent edition of which I reviewed in these pages last year. The trouble for any biographer of Cameron – as Elliott and Hanning discovered – is that the man Anthony King calls “Britain’s first dilettante prime minister since Herbert Asquith” is a politician of surfaces and superficial effects. He lacks a distinctive philosophical world-view or any apparent hinterland. He’s fluent and articulate – and he looks nice in white tie – but is he anything more than that? He has written nothing of worth – nothing even to compare with, say, Jesse Norman’s recent biography of Edmund Burke. Where do you turn for deeper insight into his thinking, values and motivation? His speeches are on the whole so feeble or self-contradictory that the Conservatives were compelled to erase them from the internet: a sinister and egregious act from a party that ought to believe in institutional wisdom.

Perhaps Ashcroft will discover a cache of letters as Charles Moore did when researching his biography of Margaret Thatcher, or something equally revealing of the Prime Minister’s inner life. Still, it’s safe to assume that Ashcroft, whose polling has proved such a valuable public service, is no admirer of Cameron. So what is he up to?

Missing in action

I was a guest at British GQ’s 25th anniversary dinner, held at Phillips auction house in Victoria, London. In a witty speech Nicholas Coleridge of Condé Nast said that during its 25 years GQ had had six editors and three publishers. All three publishers were at the dinner. Many of the editors were conspicuously absent. “You can compare our six GQ editors to the six wives of Henry VIII and their similar fates,” Coleridge said. “In English schools, we used to memorise this rhyme about the wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. With GQ editors, it goes: dismissed, promoted, died, dismissed, dismissed, survived.” So that cleared up the mystery of the absent editors.

Coleridge said GQ had become a “superbrand”, with its “glamorous Men of the Year ceremony”, which proved such a hit with our old friend Russell Brand. GQis often ridiculed for being in thrall to the vacuities of celebrity culture – for indeed being an embodiment of it. What is seldom, or never, mentioned is its commitment to good writing and reportage at a time when British newspapers have lost confidence in long-form journalism. For this reason, one wishes it well.

Rules of the game

On the subject of anniversaries, we have just sent to the printers the second of our two New Statesman Century magazine anthologies. In volume one, we featured many of the most celebrated pieces from our archive, such as J B Priestley’s “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs”, the essay that led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In this second volume, we have concentrated on encounters, appreciations, profiles and character sketches.

We lead off with Kingsley Martin’s January 1939 conversation with Winston Churchill, in which he speaks, even before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, of his campaign for rearmament and warns of the terrors to come. In the interview, Churchill says that, with adequate leadership, “democracy can be a more efficient form of government than fascism”. What mattered above all – then as now – was adherence to the rule of law. “The laws are based on Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home.” Good words, and true. You can buy the special edition at: newstatesman.com/century.

Surveying the destruction in Unmanned: America's Drone Wars.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR