Neal Ascherson

British journalist

Charles Neal Ascherson (born 5 October 1932) is a Scottish journalist and writer. He has been described by Radio Prague as "one of Britain's leading experts on central and eastern Europe". Ascherson is the author of several books on the history of Poland and Ukraine. His work has appeared in The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

Appearing on television discussion programme After Dark (TV series) in 1987

Quotes edit

1960s edit

  • In the East, you have to buy a Polish paper to find out what is going on in the world. In the West (with few exceptions), the Press is as outward-looking and reflective as any on earth. The East is shabby, the West is bright. In the West, chance acquaintances tend to measure their words and celebrate with decorum. But in the East, there is a vivacity and alertness, almost a wildness when drinks and music are added, which seems more Slav than German. As a by-product of Communism, meant or unmeant, this lust for experience in thought and deed is something which burns all over Eastern Europe and which has not left the Germans unaffected. To some extent, the East Germans have come to share the mental attitudes of the "Socialist camp" as a whole, and to that extent, their approach to the fact of being German has been modified. This does not mean that, given half a chance, many of them would not pack the smart new tartan suitcases now on sale in the Democratic Republic and come West; they would, and candid supporters of the Ulbricht way of doing things admit it. But even those who find the climate intolerable — one unhappy museum attendant gestured at his Egyptian mummies and growled: "At least they were free when they were alive" — often take the basic social policy of their State for granted and confess to fears that life in West Germany might prove insecure and lonely.
  • There is fairly general agreement that the career advantages of 'the tie' are decreasing fast. In merchant banking, the Army, the foreign service, they survive, but in many jobs the boss has no special taste for public-school boys. In some, he would even hesitate to hire them. This problem is now much more the problem of Oxbridge advantage. Some feel that the blow must be directed not at the public schools but at their connection with "the educational establishment", the staffing of universities.
    The public-school values might be lost, but are they valuable? Those, who believe in them feel that they train the individual to take responsibility, that they teach a sense of the public as opposed to the selfish interest. Those who have their doubts say that these values are not really individualist but collectivist, the values of a conforming and separate upper crust which only add up to the techniques of tact needed by any authoritarian group. Modern society needs real individualists, moral independence and adaptability, of a kind which the old training for an Army officer or district officer did not have to provide. And there is the objection, growing out of a peculiarly English brand of socialism, to any total environment which takes moral training out of the hands of the family and' offers it to an institution. There are signs, anyway, that the current demand for boarding school education has less and less to do with those traditional values, more and more to do. with plain social success. One headmaster says that parents' motives in sending sons to his school are "basically snob".
  • The emergence of Dr Kiesinger, Inoffensive and charming in his own person, is another sign of paralysis within the Christian Democrats [of West Germany]. Deadlock between the party leaders at Bonn was too hard, personal hatreds too hot, for any of the men at court to stand a chance of succeeding Chancellor Erhard. So a satrap from the provinces was called. For those who called him, foreign reactions to his less-than-immaculate past counted far less than the fact that in West Germany Dr Kiesinger is respected, popular and uncommitted. Dr Kiesinger is 62, with the step of a statesman and the looks of an actor. As Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, he has been solidly successful gathering Christian Democratic support from the Swabian Hills and the clean new factories around Stuttgart. Since 1945 he has made no political blunders. And yet, with all his qualities, there is something missing. He is handsome, but placid. He is the nineteenth-century orator of golden eloquence, rather than the twentieth-century master of the mass rally or the fireside chat. He is an elegant debater, but thin-skinned when it comes to unkind heckling. Everybody likes him, but nobody seems to be afraid of him. Dr Kiesinger seems a tittle too nice to lead the riven Christian Democrats as firmly as they must be led. He is no fighter. He is 'Gentleman George,' or, perhaps, Ferdinand the Bull.
  • Public opinion is broadly on our side, and the Social Democrats in particular believe that Europe will never work without Britain. So far, so good. But the real question is how hard the West Germans can fight for our interests against possible French resistance. And here, to begin with, there is a fearsome difficulty which forms the very foundation of the Grand Coalition. That astonishing alliance between Right and Left, between men as far apart politically as Willy Brandt and Franz-Josef Strauss, rests heavily on the basis of better relations with France. ... And if Bonn now quarrels with Paris over British, entry, its justification would be destroyed. Strauss, Rainer Barzel, Freiherr von Guttenberg and the other right-wingers might well then withdraw their support for Willy Brandt's Eastern policy and demand a return to cold-war rigidity. This may prove a fatal weakness, if France takes a strong stand against British entry. The Government can afford an argument, or energetic persuasion on our behalf, but not a head-on collision.
  • We do not even know if the Soviet Union has won a battle. Staggered by the total Czechoslovak resistance and the hurricane of world criticism, the Soviet leaders seem on the brink of partial and disorderly retreat. Mr Dubcek is back in some sort of circulation, and a chink of hope seems to be opening. But we do know, whatever happens, that the Soviet Union is losing a world.
    What is being done to Czechoslovakia is a crime as appalling as that which was done to Hungary 12 years ago. But the disaster is even huger. From now on, the Soviet Union ceases to be the leader of world Communism in any effective sense. The passionate, stumbling march of millions of people across the earth towards justice goes on, through revolution here and through solemn parliamentary succession there. But the Soviet Union remains behind, leader now only of a humiliated and embittered corner of Europe which seems, today, to have nothing much to offer the human race.

1980s edit

  • Conservatism, it should not be necessary to say, is the creed of social unity and is entitled to say so. When the horse obeys the rider’s touch on the reins, that is – for a conservative – unity. When the horse proposes a trot back to the stable, at a moment when the rider proposes a canter to the battlefield that is divisiveness and in the ensuing contest of wills the rider may fall off. One cavalry unit has, for the moment, ceased to exist. It ought to follow, but apparently does not, that when a right-wing government contrives to heighten social divisions rather than to obscure them, its adversaries should be hugely entertained and encouraged.
  • All the same, conservatism still eludes satisfactory definition even as an aim. If it were just a style, as some writers seem to assume, the Soviet regime would qualify without difficulty, but all states which endeavour to avoid political change will not be allowed by the nouveaux philosophes of the right, wherever in the world, to be conservative. ‘Rightism’ will not do either: the Nazi programme of destroying an entire social order and its institutions, though supported initially by many German conservatives, drove some of them in the end to conspiratorial resistance.
  • Some questions were raised by journalists in the early Seventies, all over Western Europe, which have never been answered in Britain. If the press is to be owned by private tycoons like Murdoch, or by international conglomerates with many other interests, how is editorial independence to be protected? How is the public, democratic function of the media to be guaranteed while they remain in private hands? In those days, the suggestion that journalists should have entrenched and specified rights over the integrity of what they wrote and over who was appointed or elected to be their editor was greeted by the newspaper proprietors as a threat to press liberty worse than that presented by the printing unions. A few experiments in that direction were made, none very encouraging. Yet the whole recent history of Times Newspapers raises that question again in its most acute form: only the journalists – not the readers, not ineffective ‘independent’ directors – can really guarantee the editor’s independence against a proprietor, and then only if their rights are solidly documented. Britain may think it does not need a written constitution, but British newspapers do, and that constitution should be written into law. After reading Good Times, Bad Times, nobody could believe that the present system, with the Government attaching a string of ad hoc conditions designed by itself to a given newspaper sale, is in any way effective.
    • "Cross Words" London Review of Books 5:21 (17 November 1983)
    • Oliver Woods and James Bishop's The Story of the 'Times' (Michael Joseph) was under review, as well as Harold Evans' Good Times, Bad Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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