Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Airey Neave: The Man Who Helped Make Margaret Thatcher


During these awful and bleak times, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don't get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I shall publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political heroes who are unfortunately no longer with us.

The first of these articles is about a British soldier and World War Two spy who also practiced as a lawyer before becoming the Conservative Member of Parliament for Abingdon in Oxfordshire. This is the story of Airey Neave, someone who had a remarkable career and was taken from us far too early when he was assassinated by a car bomb shortly before the 1979 general election.

Neave had a very comfortable upbringing, born into a wealthy family who had gained their prominence as merchants in the 18th century, importing goods from the West Indies. Neave's distant relative, Sir Richard Neave, also served as the Governor of the Bank of England and was subsequently awarded a peerage.

Airey was schooled at Eton College from 1929 and went on to study the theoretical side of law at Merton College at Oxford University where, in 1933, composed a prize winning essay on the likely consequences of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. The student had visited Germany earlier that year and was convinced that there would be a war in the next decade and suggested that Britain and the rest of Europe should prepare for such a scenario. Neave particularly noted how Hitler and the Nazi Party had seized power and were using non democratic means of gaining momentum from brainwashing propaganda against the allied victors of World War 1 to the Enabling Act of 1933 which essentially allowed the then Chancellor of Germany have the powers of a dictator following a the destruction by fire of the German Parliament, the Reichstag, almost certainly carried out by the Nazis.

It was in 1935 that the young Oxford law student would join the territorial army as Second Lieutenant in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, this was when the career of what would be a decorated military man and British Officer would begin. He finished his degree in 1938 and transferred his territorial commission to the Royal Engineers and was subsequently mobilised at the outbreak of war, being deployed to France in the infant months of 1940. However, Neave's time on the frontline of battle would be short lived, he was wounded and captured by the Germans in Calais in May 1940 and was swiftly sent to Spangenberg Castle Prisoner of War Camp before being moved to Stalag, the gigantic Prisoner of War Camp in the town of Thorn in German-occupied western Poland. After having his commission transferred once again, this time to the Royal Artillery, Neave, along with another British prisoner managed to escape and flee towards the eastern border of Soviet-controlled eastern Poland.

Despite these heroic attempts to escape, they were both captured before they could get back to allied territory and were subsequently arrested by German officers, both were sent to the high security prison of Colditz Castle, near Leipzig and Dresden in Saxony, Germany. This particular Prisoner of War Camp was reserved for allied officers and those who had escaped other camps and prisons; at its peak during the war, it held up to 20,000 prisoners at one time. This particular site was also used during WW1 as a Prisoner of War Camp and was one of Hitler's most favoured locations to send high ranking prisoners, primarily for two reasons, firstly it had stood solid for over a millennium (apart from an accidental fire in 1504) and secondly and more importantly it was over 400 miles within Nazi occupied territory at the time Airey Neave was imprisoned there. The Third Reich had also identified Colditz as a crucial location and deemed one of the most secure based off evidence as it had seen no escapees during the whole duration of the First World War. Furthermore, the colossal structure had walls seven feet thick and was conveniently, for the Nazis, built on the edge of a cliff with over a 250ft drop to the River Mulde. Colditz was what it was generally referred to, but the official name given to it by Hitler was Offizierslager, meaning officer's camp, and very few people would ever escape from this location. However, there was two and one of those was of course, Airey Neave.

Not only was Airey Neave one of the first people ever to escape the Castle, but he was the first British Officer to escape, he'd tried once before with Dutch Officer Anthony Luteyn, a fellow escapee from another POW Camp and also briefly held and interrogated by the Gestapo. The counterfeit German uniforms were hastily and somewhat carelessly made, and they never stood a chance, but after more time was spent on making the German Officer uniforms, the British Dutch duo escaped on 5th January 1942. Even though Colditz was deep inside German occupied territory and over 400 miles from allied land, Neave returned to Britain in April 1942 via Switzerland, France, Spain and then Gibraltar before finally returning back to mainland Britain where he was rightfully awarded the Military Cross, as well as being awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Officer). Neave wasn't the only notable serviceman to escape the towering castle, including Douglas Bader the RAF legend and the man who would later so poignantly and accurately describe Colditz, Patrick Reid.

However, taking a step back, Neave returned to serve his country but not on the frontline in battle, he was employed by MI9, the special offshoot of MI6 established during the war to support European Resistance networks by the Department for War. His duties whilst serving in the secret service included supporting escape organisations in POW Camps across Europe, similar to, but often less secure, camps than the one he had been held in from 1940 to 1941. Neave is understood to be either directly responsible or part of a team which helped free over 5000 allied airmen and soldiers between 1942 and 1945, including many British servicemen who were helped by MI9 spies and escape organisations; many of whom were transported the same route that Neave had taken himself, through Spain, into Gibraltar and then back to the UK. The Oxford don also travelled around France and Belgium, prior to the D-Day landings, where he helped rescue over 300 allied airmen who had been shot down by the Luftwaffe, from forest camps, deep inside Nazi territory.

At the end of the War, Neave being a fluent German speaker and a fully qualified lawyer, he was invited to serve on the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Neave was tasked with the job of reading the indictments to senior Nazis and leaders of the axis powers. He was awarded the Bronze Star by the US Government for his services during the war, primarily his time as an MI9 spy behind enemy lines; not only that he was rightfully honoured with an OBE before being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and then retiring to the reserves in 1951.

Following his decorated military career, Neave desired a life in politics and stood in the 1950 general election as the Conservative candidate for Thurrock where he secured 30pc of the vote, despite it being a safe Labour seat since its creation in 1945 – in fact it was held by Labour until it fell in 1987 to the Conservative candidate Tim Janman, who won with less than 1000 majority. Not to be beaten and taking it in his stride, Neave stood in the parliamentary seat of Ealing North in 1951, following Prime Minister Clement Attlee's desire for a snap general election after he disastrously lost 78 seats in 1950. Despite Winston Churchill's victory, following the Tories' gain of a further 23 seats, Airey Neave was not one of them although he was close, a mere 120 votes separated Neave and the successful Labour Co-op candidate, James Hudson, however, this seat would fall in 1955.

However, Airey Neave wouldn't have to wait this long to be elected, as in 1953 the Oxfordshire seat of Abingdon became available when Sir Ralph Glyn, the sitting Conservative MP was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Glyn of Farnborough. Neave comfortably won the by election with close to 23,000 votes and would then hold the safe seat with a majority of over 45pc of the vote in each of the following elections. Despite suffering a heart attack in late 1959, the war hero continued his career in politics, even when the then Chief Whip Edward Heath recommended Neave to retire, the ex-spy and soldier remained as Member of Parliament for Abingdon until his premature death in 1979.

Heath and Neave would later come at loggerheads again in 1974 following Harold Wilson's victory in the October election, he advised the leader of the Party to stand down after his failed Prime Ministership and then failure to defeat Labour at two elections, one ending in a hung Parliament and the other producing Wilson's second government. Neave advised three key Tories to stand against Heath in a leadership election, these being Sir Keith Joseph, William Whitelaw and finally Edward du Cann; none of the aforementioned thought they could defeat the man who took us into the EEC – although Joseph had stood, he withdrew his challenge and encouraged his supporters to back one Margaret Thatcher. The Shadow Education and Science Secretary, who had also served in Mr Heath's government for its full lifetime, appointed Airey Neave as her campaign manager.

Following her successful, and at the time surprising, leadership bid in 1975, Airey Neave was made head of Mrs Thatcher's private office before being promoted to the Shadow Cabinet as the opposite number of Merlyn Rees and then later Roy Mason in the Northern Ireland Office. Neave and Mason surprisingly had a lot in common in terms of policy, both were staunch Unionists and supporters of Ulsterisation, a policy to grow the recently established Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and decrease British military presence in Northern Ireland. This was at the height of The Troubles and a time when even Labour politicians weren't favoured by Irish Republicans and nationalists. Roy Mason in particular was despised by nationalists for his role in increasing the use of the SAS in Ulster and his tough approach to Northern Irish politics, such as his "firm but fair" approach which categorised Irish Republican terrorism as "nothing more than a security threat" which angered the nationalists even more. Neave gained the respect of Mason and they worked well together despite having major differences on other policy issues, however, Neave's successor as was Humphrey Atkins who swiftly abandoned Ulsterisation in favour of a more diplomatic solution.

On a side note, Roy Mason subsequently gained a lot of respect from several senior Tories for his very much centrist stance and was even suggested to defect from Labour to the SDP in 1982. It was the then Secretary of State for Energy, Nigel Lawson who suggested Mason as the next Chairman of the National Coal Board due to his long running conflict with NUM leader Arthur Scargill, however, Thatcher was sceptical and instead appointed Ian MacGregor, however, she did have "a lot of time" for Roy Mason and saw him as someone who she could deal with.

Back to our main subject of the story, Airey Neave; the Northern Ireland Shadow Cabinet role would ultimately be Neave's last job as the war hero and British national treasure was assassinated as he left the car park of the Palace of Westminster on 30th March 1979 by a car bomb planted underneath his Vauxhall Cavalier.It was Monday this week which marked 41 years since Irish terrorists murdered a much loved British war hero and a politician respected from all corners of the House of Commons. The Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for Neave's murder although some suspect it was an IRA assassination, but the lesser known terrorist organisation claimed responsibility first in an attempt to gain notoriety, although this theory has never been proved.

Business in the House continued just over an hour later with Labour Chief Whip Michael Cocks and Tory Chief Whip Norman St John-Stevas both agreeing to make a joint statement on how Parliament "will not be baulked by murdering thugs". Neave's assassination happened in the mid afternoon whilst Peter Rees was speaking in the House on the Credit Unions Bill.

The murder of the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary came just two days after Jim Callaghan's Government had lost a vote of no confidence in the Commons and it was nailed on for Thatcher's new look Conservatives to win a majority in the resulting general election. Callaghan paid tribute to Neave and said how "no effort will be spared to bring the murderers to justice and rid the United Kingdom of the scourge of terrorism".

However, it was the Iron Lady who paid the most fitting tribute to the subject of this piece when she said, whist obviously shaken, "He was one of freedom's warriors. No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong; but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It's a rare combination of qualities. There's no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph". Prior to this verbal statement to the press, the then Leader of the Opposition who was preparing for a general election with one of her staunchest supporters leading her though it, cancelled her Ministerial replies at the news of the death of 'the man who helped make Margaret Thatcher'.

Finally, Bruges Group Honourary President Lord Tebbit of Chingford, who was a personal friend of Airey Neave said "Airey thought you must eliminate the IRA militarily and I'm quite sure that if he had not have been assassinated in the run up of the 1979 General Election then, if an advisor had come to him and said "they want a ceasefire", then he'd have replied with his usual line of "they'll have one before long" by which he meant they'd all be dead.".Tebbit firmly believes that Neave's assassination firmed up Mrs Thatcher's tough stance towards the IRA and nationalist terrorism on the island of Ireland; saying "he would've made sure that the IRA were defeated swiftly and definitively and that the Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom".

In loving memory of Lieutenant Colonel Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave DSO, OBE, MC, TD - 23rd January 1916 - 30th March 1979

Thank you for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with me @ethan_thoburn as well as keeping up to date with the work that the Bruges Group do by following our Twitter and Facebook pages @BrugesGroup

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