Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson was for many years a foreign correspondent for the Observer, based in Bonn, and has written several books on Central and Eastern Europe, including Black Sea and The Struggles for Poland. He is also the author of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland and a novel, The Death of the Fronsac. He has written a hundred pieces for the LRB, starting early in 1980 with an account of being in a taxi queue with the spy Anthony Blunt, ‘fervently cheerful’ now his secret had been revealed.

The nobility of Poland-Lithuania, superbly quarrelsome and eccentric, left every Western visitor with a lifetime of traveller’s tales. The early 18th century put many European monarchies on the track to central control and absolutism, but the szlachta pushed the Commonwealth in the opposite direction. 

Big Boss in Fast Cars: In Brezhnev’s Room

Neal Ascherson, 24 February 2022

His great selling point was that he wasn’t Stalin or Khrushchev. Brezhnev, his colleagues assumed, wouldn’t have them shot or send their families to Siberia. And unlike Khrushchev, Stalin’s ebullient successor, he wouldn’t suddenly fire them in a drunken rage or set them impossible targets in titanic, half-baked projects.

Imperial Narcotic

Neal Ascherson, 18 November 2021

Two fantasies of greatness were in conflict: the outworn vision of a global British ‘family’ radiating from the mother country, and the idea of the Commonwealth as a mighty moral example, showing the races of the world how to live in peace and unity. Both fantasies shared the belief that Great Britain was not an ordinary nation but – even in the post-imperial period – one summoned to follow a messianic destiny.

White Sheep at Rest: After Culloden

Neal Ascherson, 12 August 2021

Howdid the Duke of Cumberland become the ‘Butcher’ of Culloden? Before and immediately after that battle, he was adored as the saviour of Hanoverian Britain from Jacobites and papists. As George II’s soldier son, he was the ‘martial Boy’; for Drury Lane audiences, ‘The noble Youth, whom ev’ry eye approves/ Each tongue applauds, and ev’ry...

Britain in 1815 emerged emaciated and simmering with unrest after three huge wars in a generation, but developed no written constitution. The best that can be said is that people start scribbling most frequently in stormy times, when the existing state of governance no longer carries conviction with subjects, rulers or both. All the same, Linda Colley’s book proves that constitutions can sprout from all kinds of earth. They can limit a ruler’s power, or sanctify and entrench that power. They can be grants of universal rights, or ‘no tres­passing’ notices designed to keep natives, women, immigrants and the poor out of decision-making. Some are manifestos for a political movement. Others are found­ational documents for a nation’s fresh-won independence. But the case for imposing a written constitution on ancient Britain, while touching on several of those motives, is more elementary. The ‘unconstitution’ has worked only because England’s ruling elites, out of decent self-interest, have never fully exploited its incredible lack of formal constraint on executive power. That convention is now ending, and the executive is pushing hard at its boundaries.

‘The subtlest​ of insults to Scotland is, it seems, to return to it,’ Neal Ascherson wrote in the Scottish political review Q in 1975. The historian Christopher Harvie described the...

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Coleridge’s​ favourite novelist, John Galt, had a gift for encapsulating disgrace under pressure, and his novels of small-town Scottish life are among the early masterpieces of British...

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Beast of a Nation: Scotland’s Self-Pity

Andrew O’Hagan, 31 October 2002

In Westminster Abbey a couple of years ago, I stood for over an hour talking to Neal Ascherson. It was one of those freezing January evenings – cold stone, long shadows – and we...

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Misha Glenny, 9 May 1996

In the late Twenties, the paternal grandfather of Dimitri, a close friend of mine from Thessaloniki, decided to leave Novorossisk, the Russian Black Sea port. The Soviet Government had ended the...

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Sylvia Lawson, 24 November 1988

The book’s title mocks the author’s own position. It comes from a newspaper column of 1985 in which he attacked what he saw as ‘the retreat from politics’ into nihilistic...

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The Rat Line

Christopher Driver, 6 December 1984

By chance, the evening I took this book to bed for the painful reading expected, I jabbed the tooth of a comb down a fingernail and cried out. As a reminder of what Klaus Barbie was about, not...

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Liking Walesa

Tim Sebastian, 15 July 1982

For nearly eighteen months Lech Walesa walked on quicksand, buoyant and for all the world supremely confident. In the summer of 1981 I asked him whether he was worried about the Soviet tanks...

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Poland’s Special Way

Keith Middlemas, 4 February 1982

In the six months since Neal Ascherson’s intricate but lucid account of the rise of Solidarity was finished, Poland’s affairs have become the latest world-heroic saga. While the...

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