Reading Neal Ascherson

In the first 'What Our Editors Are Reading,' culture editor Owen Hatherley reviews the Observer columns of Scottish writer Neal Acherson.

Reading old journalism is an interesting experience – these are first drafts of history, which makes it a fun game to see what they got right and where their predictions were rash.

Reading Neal Ascherson’s collection of Observer columns ‘Games without Shadows’ over the weekend, it was bizarre to imagine pieces so sophisticated – and lengthy! – appearing in the space now occupied by the weekly 800 word hate from the likes of Nick Cohen. These mid-80s columns are a cross-section of the interests of an intelligent Scottish nationalist of the centre-left in the Thatcher years; the focus flits between Scotland, North London, and Central-Eastern Europe.

Some of the arguments in these calm, beautifully written columns have been spectacularly borne out, such as his scorn for the conservatism of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, his sceptical accounts of Thatcher’s ‘popular’ privatisations (shares held by individuals, he notes, would have barely registered on the stock market) and a prescient piece on the birth of the London property boom. Some names are familiar. One Andrew Neil appears in an account of the printers’ strikes at Wapping, shocking journalists who realised he spoke to them as a manager for Murdoch, not as a fellow hack.

Ascherson was and is not a figure of the radical left, but unlike most social democrats of the 1980s, he fully understood the stakes of Thatcherism, and realised it meant to destroy the labour movement and any rival centres of power, completely and utterly. He realised that the abolition of the GLC, for instance, was about ‘the most over-centralised state in the western world’ crushing an opponent, and that the municipal ‘loony left’ was attempting to ‘give local democracy a kiss of life on what appears to be its deathbed’.

The book was published in 1988. A year later, the Eastern European dictatorships he opposed all collapsed; ten years later, the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd and the Greater London Assembly seemed to be the ‘de-centralisation’ from Westminster he demanded. Some of his writing on the old Eastern Bloc can seem naïve now. One column explains away the Polish opposition’s cult of the interwar dictator Josef Pilsudski; with Poland’s democracy increasingly ‘managed’ in nature, I wonder if he’d be so sanguine now. Over here, meanwhile, Scotland is on the way to escape, though Holyrood’s radicalism is much exaggerated; City Hall, meanwhile, is having its powers brutally curbed.

Most of all though, it’s remarkable to see a figure of the ‘centre’ stand where Ascherson does in these columns. Against privatisation, against ‘the Right to Buy’, for trade unions, for independent local government, for the abolition of the House of Lords and the Monarchy. In these pieces, you can see Ascherson watch the Overton window shift away from him, in real time.