Nationalism, Brexit and Drones – A Conversation with Neal Ascherson

Photo: Neil Ascherson photographed for The Observer


Before he arrived in 1952 to study history at King’s College, Cambridge under the supervision of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, Neal Ascherson was conscripted into the Royal Marines at age 18 to defend British colonial interests in Malaya against Chin Peng’s communist insurgency. It was Hobsbawm who, in his benevolently probing way during their first encounter, helped Ascherson confront his own feelings of remorse, later calling him “perhaps the most brilliant student” he ever taught. Declining the temptation to become an academic, Ascherson craved exposure to the world and went on to become one of his generation’s leading foreign correspondents, reporting from the Prague Spring, the Paris riots of May 1968, the 1973 coup in Chile, and later becoming a regular columnist for The Observer and Independent on Sunday. He now writes regularly for the London Review of Books, and has recently published his first novel. Ever since his time at King’s College, he has published voluminously on struggles for self-government—in Congo, Uganda, Scotland, Wales, Poland, Spain.

Was it the experience at Malaya that cemented your subsequent interest in movements for political independence? 

Interesting question I had never asked myself. I think my attraction towards independence/self-government movements went in several stages:

As a child in Scotland and later in England, my mother fed me with her own band of what you might call romantic conservative nationalism. The stories of Scottish resistance to the English, the highly-coloured tragedies of Highland history especially.  ‘Worse things happened at Culloden!’ if I fell down and cried. Indeed, my first name (never used) is Charles Neal, on account of my mother’s feeling for the man she always referred to as ‘Prince Charles Edward’ (never ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’). She changed her mind while my father was on the way to New Register House (Edinburgh) to record my birth, but there were no mobile phones in those days to reach him in time.

At the same time, she was fiercely ‘British’, even though slightly contemptuous of the English. She didn’t care for devolution, and would certainly have voted No in the 2014 independence referendum.

As a boy, I saw the Scottish Covenant movement, in which two million people signed a petition for a Scottish Parliament. There were copies lying in our fishmonger’s, and when you got to the head of the queue, you signed it. That made a huge impression on me, as a teenage boy.

On my National Service, on active service during the ‘Emergency’ in Malaya, I grew uncomfortably aware that the British had broken a promise of independence given to the ‘Federated Malay States’ during the Second World War, in an effort to encourage resistance to the Japanese occupation. I was shocked by what I saw of the British Empire, and grew very sympathetic to decolonisation in general.

At Cambridge, in the early 1950s, I got to know a group of bright students from Uganda and became involved in their campaigning for independence. A year after graduating, I went to Uganda and lived there for most of a year with them. I became the ‘propaganda secretary’ of Uganda National Congress, the main nationalist party then, and only the intervention of the amiable Governor, an ex-Cambridge Apostle (Sir Andrew Cohen), reversed a Special Branch deportation order. In Uganda I also met many Africans working to liberate other colonised territories, and saw the ‘white settler’ culture in Kenya.

Back in the UK, I became a journalist, and in 1959 joined The Scotsman in its London office as ‘Commonwealth Correspondent’. This was the ‘wind of change’ year, in which the force of ‘national liberation’, especially in Africa, reached full strength. The Empire began to fall apart. I reported all this, and got to know some of the ‘nationalist’ leaders. In 1960 I joined The Observer, a paper already famously committed to the dismantling of the British Empire. I also saw French imperialism at its worst in the Algerian war.

At the same time, I was developing my interest in East/Central Europe, especially Poland. I first went there in 1957. The past and the present of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary taught me much about the positive side of European nationalism and the moral importance of national independence.

In 1963, I wrote a biography of Leopold II, founder of the Congo Free State. I became a foreign correspondent in Central Europe during the 1960s, a period of complicated and sometimes tragic struggles for national liberation from the Soviet ’empire’. And I also did a lot of reporting from apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia and the future Namibia. From all these experiences, I drew lessons for Scotland, which became useful when I became Scottish Politics correspondent for The Scotsman in 1975.

What are the positive sides of nationalism that you feel might get lost in the current confusion of nationalist resurgence? [And relatedly: do the positives only apply to geographically smaller states?]

Nationhood is ancient. Nationalism as we define it now is a 19th century ideology, connected with the emergence and solidifying of the nation-state as the suitable-sized arena for ‘modern’ industrial capitalism to operate in.

Tom Nairn wrote that nationalism is a Janus-head. One face glaring backwards into an imagined, exclusive past of golden ages and victimhood; the other looking forwards to a future of modernisation, liberation from reactionary constraints, opening to the outside world and joining it on equal terms.

Michael Ignatieff, late of this college, popularised (but didn’t invent) the distinction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism (essentially Nairn’s two faces). You can look at nationalism as a spectrum, reaching from savage racial-ethnic beliefs (Serbia) across to the almost painfully inclusive and progressive civic nationalism of Scotland.

But it’s important to remember that there’s no nationalism which doesn’t contain some percentage of each strain. (Even in Scotland, there are a few loonies who believe in Celtic blood and soil myths and hate the English.)

Obviously, I prefer the nationalism which liberates and modernises (examples too many to list). There is indeed an element of size here. The old conglomerate superstates (Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Union, the UK) never generated that sort of ideology, but broke down into nations which often did.

Globalisation is actually encouraging the emergence of new nation-states, rather than ‘replacing the nation’. Ernst Gellner used to say: ‘The question is not why there are so many states, but why – given the vast number of nations – there are so few’.

The Kurds or the Palestinians might say it’s because of a history of state violence and repression, not for lack of struggle. The Catalans or the Scots may say it’s because of the fierce socio-cultural resistance that attends referenda. Either way, it’s hard to compare the present to past centuries and not think that people have lost faith in Revolution, opting instead for Evolution. You’ve written about the volunteer International Brigades that went to fight, and die, in the Spanish Civil War – ‘better to die standing than to live forever on your knees’, to quote Dolores Ibárruri. Having lived during both times, do you think there’s generally less of a sense today that some things are worth dying for? Is that regrettable?

What’s true, and one of the greatest improvements in the human condition during my lifetime, is the spread of cowardice. In the past century—since the battles of Ypres and Passchendael, let’s say—people in most western countries have learned to value their own lives more. In part, this is an outcome of the decay of deference. In part, it is because life for most people has become better stocked with enjoyable possibilities. Ordinary people are no longer prepared to go over the top into machine-gun fire because some pimply public-schoolboy in a subaltern’s uniform blows a whistle. Today, they would turn round in the trench and say: ‘Like fuck we will!’ In turn, and because of this change, military commanders have become much more cautious and mean about risking the lives of their men. See the welcome operational caution shown in the Falklands or Afghanistan or Iraq.

Revolution is a rather different matter. Very few people choose deliberately to initiate or join one. In their normal state, they would indeed prefer ‘evolution’. But for most who experience it, revolution simply arrives out of the political sky, like Hurricane Irma. My own experience suggests to me that the condition of revolution is also a rare but very dramatic morphism of human behaviour in which a set of recognisable changes begin to affect individuals. Relationships change suddenly, as strangers are identified as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. There is a sense of barriers collapsing, of universal unity and possibility. Solid and age-old institutions are suddenly perceived as stage scenery, easily to be torn down. Voices often change, even facial appearance. Those symptoms are part of the aetiology of revolution, an ecstatic state which sucks in thousands of sober individuals who never previously contemplated the idea that they would take part in such actions or come to see humanity in such terms. The condition is not lasting, generally beginning to lose heat and speed after some initial months.

Will it recur? Of course it will. But when and how, nobody can know. The poet Erich Fried imagined himself trying to convey to astounded youngsters the feeling of such moments:

das Glueck der Hoffnung auf Glueck,

so dass die sagen:

Was war das? Wann kommt es wieder?”

The reluctance to put lives at risk by putting boots on the ground has resulted in new forms of aerial warfare, often with indiscriminate killing of civilians. There is also the issue of the increased use of drones, with the rate of US drone strikes increasing tenfold after Obama took office, and increasing another fourfold since Trump took office. Maybe that’s a good trade-off under some kind of utilitarian logic, but is it really, and for whom?

Indiscriminate, remote-directed killing is of course nothing new. Allied ‘area bombing’ in WWII killed 45,000 civilian men, women and children in Germany alone. Possession of nuclear weapons indicates readiness to perform remote-directed, ‘anonymous’ killing on an infinitely vaster scale. Deaths by drone-borne or carrier-launched missiles—foul as they are—don’t yet begin to compare in scale.

But war is still a conglomerate. Air strikes hit supposedly ‘discriminate’ targets in Mosul or Raqqa, but the Iraqi infantry still have to go in. It’s a job they hate, but ‘indiscriminate’ massacre of local civilians along with a very few Isis fighters, maybe released by some button-clicking young army technician in Nevada, is not going to help them much.  They are independent-minded and professional, and increasingly unwilling to risk their lives just because some dumb commander won’t grasp their situation on the ground. Correspondingly, a commander in action is miserly with soldiers’ lives these days. The public counts the body-bags and asks who is to blame—meaning not just the enemy.

Decay of deference, ‘constructive cowardice’, above all that new respect for one’s own life—these tip the balance.  Reluctance to die or cause death is only one – minor – motive for new remote-killing technology. (Expense is a bigger one: feeding and equipping men with guns costs a fortune).  Nukes aside, the new gear is not much more lethal than the old. And meanwhile, gradually and erratically, humans come to see the invitation to slaughter other human beings as absurd.

Let’s move to another topic close to home: Brexit. You’ve written about the unfinished business of confronting English nationalism, suggesting the need, particularly for Leavers, to finally recognize their real ‘controllers’: ‘that alliance of private money and public power which maintains such shocking contrasts of wealth and such shameless unfairness in the distribution of opportunity’. Is there anywhere you’ve seen, in your reporting, where plutocracy of some form wasn’t the rule? And why do you think Brits (or perhaps just the English) have been so slow to confront their own pernicious variety? 

Ukraine today, or Russia under Boris Yeltsyn, could be called plutocracies in that a small number of colossally wealthy men do/did control the state. No European state is like that; Britain, for instance, is a place where the ruling elite is not itself necessarily rich but for its own interests protects the wealthy. In such countries, owners of great businesses have no wish to rule themselves. They just want to be left alone, above all fiscally, to get on with making money. For that, they want no more than a capitalist-friendly government—which might bale them out if they go bust.

The ‘socialist’ regimes of Europe, 1948-89, were brutal and stupid, and corrupt over privileges which we would consider pitiably slight. But not plutocracies. Scotland has at present about three or four very rich men and women who do take an interest in politics. Through donations, they have had some influence on some parties in government—but on moral issues, like sex education in schools. Their money and support is courted on larger matters like supporting/opposing independence. But they don’t dominate. And most Scots regard them with contempt.

England’s Establishment is enduring because it’s an alliance of inherited wealth and privilege, still feeling entitled to dominate the institutions, with fresh ‘self-made’ elites invited to acquire Establishment mores and share its privileges.

There’s a lot of crude wealth in Canada, but I have always liked the popular confidence that all Canadians are pretty much equal. (Even if that’s partly a myth).

If not plutocracy, where do you see the major challenge today in the so-called industrial democracies?

Democracy of the old representative-parliamentary type is clearly under huge pressure in the internet age. Social media are producing a wildly agile and changeable electorate, within quite archaic electoral systems. People want—are even practising—some kind of direct decision-making. The challenge is not to the old ‘heavy industry’ tsars of yesterday, but to the giants of communication and manipulation such as Facebook.

Your wife, Isabel Hilton, founded and runs the website chinadialogue.net, a non-profit, fully bilingual online publication based in London, Beijing, and Delhi that focuses on the environment and climate change. What have the two of you learned from the experience, and are you hopeful or pessimistic about China’s contribution to mitigating climatic changes this century? 

Among other things, I think Isabel/we learned the urgency of people all over the world—specialist or lay—to talk to each other about climate change and specific detailed environmental problems and solutions. ChinaDialogue is possible because of the recognition by a part of the power apparatus that environmental damage to water, soil, air, etc., had become so gross and rapid that it threatened to halt and even reverse economic growth itself—the ultimate raison d‘être of the regime.

The mitigating action taken by the regime is huge and impressive. But there is a lot to mitigate, and the new policies set up all kinds of hidden pressures and tensions between sectors of the regime.

It’s a really valuable project in a media landscape that focuses more on domestic trifles than even the most basic international reporting. Has political journalism become more or less parochial over the years? 

The British tabloids are even more parochial and xenophobic than they were 50 years ago. The MSM, though under extreme commercial pressure leading to staff cuts and reduction in foreign postings, have actually raised the quality and intelligence of their foreign coverage. It has become more opinionated, less cautious about impartiality. I would agree that investigative reporting requiring sustained overseas travel is much less common now. Cost!

How would you approach your journalism career if you were to hypothetically start again today, given that many investigative and international bureaus have shut down, or been downsized? 

If over again? I would get out of the UK, or at least England, learn proper IT skills and camera work, and settle in – probably – Germany as a freelance with a firm foothold in English-language periodicals (you get the space, length and thus money) and some TV connection as a pundit.

But really, when I think about it, I would forget journalism and start over as an archaeologist …

It seems you’ve already started! Since 2016, you’ve been an Honorary Visiting Professor of Archaeology at University College London. At the same time, you’ve just released your debut novel, The Death of the Fronsac. It’s a wartime story about Poles caught in the rapine and cruelty and passion of the Second World War, and how those who came to Scotland struggled to make a home in a place where they turned quickly from heroes into unwelcome scroungers. You have a deep camaraderie with the Poles who came to Scotland, doubtlessly enriched by an appreciation of Poland’s rich history (with two non-fiction books on the topic to your name). For those who today wouldn’t distinguish a war hero from a traitor, or who would endorse drone attacks in Yemen or Somalia but not welcome their refugees, what can we do? Do we need a more doctrinal approach to the teaching of history to survive the coming torrents of ethnic nationalism?

Xenophobia, periodically stoked up by governments, can never be entirely eradicated. It will in fact be stimulated, again and again, in the next decades of Europe and America by the persisting inflow of migrants.

The idea that some dream of ethnic homogeneity can be restored or realised is ludicrous. The movement from the poor southern world towards the rich and developed world is almost geological; it will continue and will grow vaster and more pressing in the coming century, and it will succeed. No walls or tighter immigration rules or work permits will modify this inflow for more than a brief slow-down. Canute’s courtiers falsely told the king that he could turn back the tide. But the global migration we are witnessing, now only in its early stages, is not even tidal: it comes in, but offers no prospect that some cosmic diurnal rhythm will make it go out again.

London is an example of a city in which multiculturalism is giving way to a genuine hybridity of culture. Good planning, and realistic education, can ease this process on. But there will inevitably be eruptions and explosions of ‘ethnic’ violence as long as one of the communities tries to maintain its hegemony over law and policing. English nationalism today has strong streaks of racialism: the question ‘When was England?’ is usually answered by ‘When it was white’. But this is because, for complex historic reasons, English nationalism has remained in a backward and deformed condition, principally because the English middle classes regard it as vulgar working class-hooliganism and hold their noses—rather than shaping it into a respectable ‘bourgeois’ movement for modernity and emancipation.

My novel, ‘The Death of the Fronsac’, is a bundle of stories and anecdotes held together with the themes of exile, of the enigma of what the word ‘home’ can mean, and of the impact on individuals lacking experience of the outside world of encounters with strangers from quite different cultures. Those differences are accepted, even valued, but are never expected to be eliminated.


Ryan Rafaty completed his PhD in Politics and International Studies at King's College, Cambridge in 2016. He currently lives in the US, where he writes on energy policy and climate change.