Ascherson was born in Edinburgh on 5 October 1932. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he read history and graduated with a triple starred first degree. The historian Eric Hobsbawm was his tutor at Cambridge and described Ascherson as "perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had. I didn't really teach him much, I just let him get on with it." He is a member of the semi-secretive Cambridge Apostles society, a debating club largely reserved for the brightest students.
After graduating he declined offers to pursue an academic career. Instead, he chose a career in journalism, first at The Manchester Guardian and then at The Scotsman (1959–1960), The Observer (1960–1990) and The Independent on Sunday (1990–1998). He contributed scripts for the documentary series The World at War (1973–74) and the The Cold War (1998). He has also been a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
As of 2016[update] Ascherson is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has been editor of Public Archaeology, an academic journal associated with UCL devoted to CRM and public archaeology issues and developments, since its inception in 1999.
In 1991 Ascherson was awarded an honorary degree from the Open University as Doctor of the University. On St Andrew's Day 2011 at their Anniversary Meeting the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland elected Ascherson an Honorary Fellow.
Neal Ascherson's first wife was Corinna Adam; the couple first met at Cambridge University and married in 1958. They had two daughters together before separating in 1974. The couple divorced in 1982. Corinna Ascherson, also a journalist, died in March 2012. In 1984, he married his second wife, the journalist Isabel Hilton. The couple currently live in London and have two (now adult) children, Iona and Alexander. His aunt was the British actress Renée Asherson.
- The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo. 1963. ISBN 1-86207-290-6.
- The Polish August: The Self-limiting Revolution. 1981. ISBN 0-670-56305-6.
- The Book of Lech Wałęsa. 1982. ISBN 0-671-45684-9.
- The Spanish Civil War (Granada Television serial script, 1983)
- The Nazi Legacy. 1984. ISBN 0-03-069303-9. with Magnus Linklater and Isabel Hilton
- The Struggles For Poland. 1987. ISBN 0-7181-2812-5.
- Games With Shadows. 1988. ISBN 0-09-173019-8.
- Black Sea. 1995. ISBN 0-8090-3043-8.
- Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. 2002. ISBN 0-8090-8491-0.
- Opposition to Turkey's Ilisu Dam rises again with Maggie Ronayne, published 27 November 2007, chinadialogue
- Wroe, Nicholas (12 April 2003). "Romantic nationalist". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
- "UK writer Neal Ascherson discusses NATO, EU on Prague visit". Radio Prague. 2004. Retrieved 13 May 2004.
- "Neal Ascherson - fascinating memories of the Soviet invasion and much more". Radio Prague. 2004. Retrieved 8 June 2004.
- "People: Staff: Honorary". Our Staff. UCL Institute of Archaeology. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
- Carman, John (2002). Archaeology and Heritage: An Introduction. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-5894-7. OCLC 48140490.
- "Corinna Ascherson". The Times. 29 March 2015. Retrieved 16 September 2015. (subscription required)
- Pavan Amara "Rhyl Street flat blaze victim, Corinna Ascherson, an idealistic socialist once one half of ‘journalism’s golden couple’", Camden New Journal, 15 March 2012
- Pendreigh, Brian (6 October 2014). "Obituary: Renée Asherson, actress". The Scotsman. Retrieved 5 January 2015.