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Airey Neave

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Airey Neave

1916 - 1979


(see long history)

Airey Neave was the last but one MP for the Berkshire county constituency of Abingdon which was abolished in 1983.

Neave was born in 1916 at Knightsbridge, London. His father was a distinguished entomologist. He was educated at Eton, and in 1933 was sent to Germany to perfect his German. It was the time when Hitler was coming to power, and the family with whom Neave was staying took part in Nazi activities. Neave was appalled at what he saw. It was this experience that determined many of his beliefs and actions in adult life. At Oxford, he studied law, but spent much of his time in drinking and general heartiness and gained only a third class degree. He did however join the Territorial Army, and was mobilised before the outbreak of war in 1939.

He had an active war. Captured in the retreat from France in 1940, he was imprisoned at Colditz, and was the first British prisoner to escape from there. Back in England, he was given the task of organising escape networks in occupied Europe to aid prisoners of war and shot-down aircrew. It was estimated that about 4000 men were rescued and returned to England in this way, but at the cost of some 500 of Neave’s volunteer operatives. In 1945, as a German-speaking lawyer, he participated in the preparations for the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, and personally interrogated some of the Nazi leaders.

Neave was elected Conservative MP for the Abingdon constituency in 1953, and held the seat until his death. His ministerial career developed slowly, hampered by a long-standing antipathy between himself and Edward Heath who became leader of the party in 1965 and prime minister in 1970. Neave put his energy into constituency matters and into campaigning to correct instances of maladministration.

These came spectacularly together in 1965, when the South East Gas Board proposed to build a large and unsightly gas holder near the recently closed Abingdon railway station. This would effectively prevent the planned redevelopment of the area. The Gas Board was willing to consider alternatives, but the Abingdon Borough Council would have to pay an impossibly large sum in compensation.

Neave conducted a successful campaign against the proposal. The payment that finally had to be made was much smaller and affordable, and the law was changed so that statutory bodies like the Gas Board would in the future have to comply with planning rules.

In 1975, it was Airey Neave who led the campaign to remove Heath from the leadership of the Conservative Party and replace him with Margaret Thatcher. She appointed him shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in her shadow cabinet. It was the time of ‘the Troubles’, and the position was a delicate and dangerous one. Neave, influenced by his war-time experiences, took a hard-line attitude towards terrorism; he thought terrorists should be jailed and not negotiated with. When a general election was called in March 1979, it seemed likely that Thatcher would win, as in fact she did, and he would become Secretary for Northern Ireland in her government.  This was unacceptable to the Nationalists, and on 30 March he was assassinated by a bomb fixed under his car.

Neave had married in 1942 Diana Josceline Barbara Giffard. They had two sons and a daughter.  After his death, his widow was granted a life peerage, taking the title of Baroness Airey of Abingdon. She died in 1992. Both are buried in the churchyard at Hinton Waldrist.


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms

© AAAHS and contributors 2016






(see short history)

Airey Neave[1]

Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave was the last but one MP for the Berkshire county constituency of Abingdon.  He may well have been the most effective politician among Abingdon’s historical MPs; he was probably the bravest; and certainly the only one of them to meet his end by political assassination.

Airey Neave was born in 1916 at Knightsbridge in London. The family was a wealthy one. Like his father, the distinguished entomologist Sheffield Airey Neave, he was educated at Eton, and in 1933 was sent to Germany to perfect his German. This was the experience that determined the course of his later career. It was the time when Hitler was coming to power. On one occasion, Neave found himself participating in a Nazi ceremonial event:  an evening march, with flaming torches, music, singing, speeches, and great surges of emotion and enthusiasm. He was appalled.[2] With prescience greater than that of many of his seniors, he understood that another war was coming. At Oxford, he studied law but spent much of his time in drinking and general heartiness, and achieved only a third class degree.[3]  But he did join the Territorial Army, and entered the regular army shortly before the outbreak of war.neave_as_pow_inc_contrast.jpg




Neave as a prisoner of war, 1 May 1941

Public domain via Wikimedia Italy







In the retreat from France in 1940, Neave was wounded and captured near Calais and, after a failed escape, was sent to the high security camp at Colditz.[4]  He got away from there at his second attempt, and was able to return to England by a circuitous route through Switzerland, Vichy France, and Spain.[5] He was then moved into intelligence work: he headed an agency known (but to very few) as MI9, setting up and running escape lines in enemy territory for escaped prisoners and shot-down aircrew. The latter, at least, had been very expensively trained and their return was economically valuable; also, the knowledge that return was possible after being shot down boosted the morale of bomber crews. It was later estimated that more than 4000 men were returned by these means. But it was impossible to maintain security in such widely spread networks and they were easily infiltrated by the enemy. At least 500 of Neave’s operatives were captured and killed.[6]

At the end of the war, as a German-speaking lawyer, Neave was involved in the Nuremberg war crimes trials, interrogating many of the Nazi leaders. He later published a book detailing his generally unflattering impressions of them.[7]

After two failed attempts to be elected to Parliament, he stood in 1953 as Conservative candidate at a by-election in Abingdon. The constituency at that time was a large one, stretching as far as Wantage and including most of the Vale. The outcome was uncertain. Until very recently, the area had been mostly agricultural, but it now included a large new population of scientists and engineers working at Harwell and other technical sites, who would have had little interest in tied cottages and farming subsidies.[8]  It was to these that Neave made his approach; he took the seat with an increased majority, and would retain it to the end of his life.

Neave was an active MP who concerned himself much with science and technology, especially the development of civil nuclear power, with transport, and, later, with computers. He was a frequent speaker in debates and chairman or vice-chairman of various back-bench committees. A rise towards cabinet office was stalled by a heart attack in 1959 and, after his recovery, by a personal antipathy, never satisfactorily explained, between himself and Edward Heath, the Conservative leader and prime minister.[9]

Instead, he turned to campaigning. What aroused his ire was individuals being frustrated by administrative rules either incompetently drafted or insensitively applied. Two of his constituents in Wantage had bought plots of land to build houses on but then changed their minds and sold them for little more than they had paid.  The tax was calculated on the difference between the selling price and a pre-war valuation when the land had been agricultural, so the men had been heavily taxed on large profits which they had not made. Neave was able to get the calculation corrected.[10] A school leaver wanted to apply for a job at the Met Office, but was ineligible because her father, although a British subject, had been born in the U.S.  The Met Office was told to make an exception to its usual rules.[11]

The same principles were applied in cases of wider importance.  When the post-war Labour government introduced its welfare reforms, people who were already above working age had been excluded. Fifteen years later, the survivors were very old and some were in serious need. Neave successfully introduced a private member’s bill to entitle them to benefits.[12] The West German government had paid over a sum of money as restitution for British subjects who had been in concentration camps. It transpired that twelve British war prisoners had been held in a separate section of the camp at Sachsenhausen, and the Foreign Office had decided that that they were ineligible for a share. Neave was able to get the support of almost 350 MPs of all parties, and, since the German money had all been distributed, the Foreign Office had unwillingly to raid its own budget to compensate the ex-prisoners. There was also the broader question of compensation for British civilians who had been interned during the war. The British government of the time had not attended the conference where this was discussed, and Neave could only criticise its negligence.[13]

One campaign had an international dimension. Rudolf Hess, whom Neave had known in 1945, was the last of the war criminals held under four-power auspices in Spandau Prison in Berlin. After 1965, old and sick, he was effectively in solitary confinement. To Neave, this was unnecessarily vindictive.  He brought a son of Hess to England to lobby for his release. The British, French and American governments would have been happy to end his now remarkably costly imprisonment and let him die quietly in private. But there were no considerations of humanity that could move the Soviets to agree, and Hess remained where he was until his death in 1987.[14]

One of Neave’s most important campaigns directly concerned Abingdon. It was a time when many utilities and industries were government-owned and effectively above the law. In 1966, the South-East Gas Board decided to build a gasholder on land it owned near the recently-closed Abingdon railway station. This would be large and unsightly, and would make the planned development of the area impossible. Smaller high pressure holders could be provided instead, but would cost an extra £250,000 which the borough council would have to pay. Of course, there was no way the borough could find that sum.

Neave spearheaded the defence, with strong support in parliament and from the press, especially The Times. A directive was issued giving the planning department of the Berkshire County Council standing in the matter and forcing the Gas Board to negotiate with it. There was a compromise; compensation would be reduced to £120,000, most of which would be paid by the County Council. The House of Lords made an amendment to a Town and Country Planning bill by which statutory undertakings would not in future be able to levy such compensation at all. Berkshire and Abingdon would be the last victims of the system. More pressure was brought to bear on the Gas Board; the compensation was finally reduced to £70,000, with the Borough’s contribution an affordable £11,500.[15]

Neave’s mostly successful campaigning showed sound organisational and tactical abilities, and these came to the fore in 1975 when he masterminded the removal of Edward Heath from the leadership of the Conservative Party and the accession of Margaret Thatcher.  His strategy was to let it be believed that Thatcher’s support was weaker than in fact it was, so some MPs voted against Heath in the belief that they were opening a path for some person other than her to succeed him.[16] It was Neave’s triumph, but it would be his undoing.

With almost any seat in the shadow cabinet available to him, the position he asked for and got was shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The insurrection known euphemistically as the Troubles was at its height, and scarcely a day passed without bloodshed. Neave’s attitude was remarkably unsophisticated and very close to the Unionist position. As he saw it, the Nationalist militias were maintaining a reign of terror within their own community.[17] The guerrilla warfare was to be ended by whatever military means were necessary. Terrorists were to be jailed, not negotiated with. The death penalty might have to be re-introduced, and he spoke in public in favour of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, which amounted to targeted assassination of Nationalist leaders.[18] The province would be ruled from London for the foreseeable future. [19]

The Nationalist networks were remarkably similar to those which Neave had run during the war: a system of separate organisations working in hostile territory but with widespread sympathy among the population. It may be that Neave believed that with his experience and his understanding of their weaknesses he could defeat them. It may be that the Nationalists though the same. On 30 March 1979, with a general election expected and a likelihood that he would thereafter become Northern Ireland Secretary in a Thatcher government, Neave was killed by a bomb attached to his car.[20]

The organisation claiming responsibility cited his “rabid militarist calls for more repression against the Irish people and for the strengthening of the SAS murder gangs”.[21] In a later interview with Neave’s biographer, a terrorist spokesman said “He would have been very successful at that job (the Northern Irish secretaryship). He would have brought the armed struggle to its knees”.[22] The perpetrators of the murder were never identified, possibly because to have done so would have imperilled British undercover agents. However, it was followed by a wave of killings of Nationalist activists, widely understood as revenge attacks.[23]

Neave married in 1942 Diana Josceline Barbara Giffard. Like him, she was at that time involved in intelligence work. A linguist, she was producing ‘black propaganda’ to be disseminated in enemy-occupied Europe and especially in Poland. [24] They had two sons and a daughter.  They made their home at Ashbury on the Berkshire Downs, but after 1975 could no longer live there because of security concerns and had to move house frequently within the Abingdon constituency, although they never lived in Abingdon itself.  After Neave’s death, his widow was granted a life peerage, taking the title of Baroness Airey of Abingdon. This enabled her to continue working for causes her husband had supported – links across the North Atlantic and within Europe. She was also active in Anglo-Polish relations. Lady Airey died in 1992, and is buried with her husband in the churchyard at Hinton Waldrist.

Airey Neave’s career and his violent death were all of a piece. His published books show him as a man of intelligence and humanity, but of simple, upright principles; a tactician rather than a strategist. His greatest admiration was for the courage and self-sacrifice of the men and women who ran the wartime escape routes, returning again and again into danger until they were caught and tortured or shot. His greatest satisfaction was to see the German war criminals at Nuremberg humiliated and punished for their actions. His uncomplicated loyalty was to the British crown and state, and he had little sympathy for the Queen’s enemies. That this put him into personal danger was something he willingly accepted. He had been in danger before.  Neave was, above all, a very brave man.


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms

© AAAHS and contributors 2016



[1] Information not otherwise referenced is from Brian Harrison, ‘Neave, Airey Middleton Sheffield (1916–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [, accessed 15 June 2016].

[2] Paul Routledge, Public Servant Secret Agent: the elusive life and violent death of Airey Neave (2002). pp. 10-11; Airey Neave, Nuremberg: a personal record of the trial of the major Nazi war criminals in 1945-6 (1978) pp.19-22.

[3] Routledge, Neave, pp 30-2

[4] Routledge, Neave, pp 46,49.

[5] Airey Neave They have their Exits (1953, 2002), passim

[6] Routledge, Neave (2002) Chap 8; Airey Neave, Saturday at MI9 (repub. 2010), pp. 20-22.

[7] Neave, Nuremberg, passim

[8] The Times 29/6/53 p. 5

[9] Routledge, Neave, pp. 222-3.

[10] The Times 26/3/68 p. 2

[11] The Times 1/2/64 p.8

[12] The Times 20/11/67 p. 8; Routledge, Neave, pp 233-4.

[13] The Times 17/7/63 p.6; 24/3/64 p. 16; Routledge, Neave, p. 230

[14] The Times 31/12/69 pp 3, 7; 6/1/70 p. 1; 22/1/70 p. 6; 7/4/71 p. 15

[15] The Times, 8/4/67 p.2; 14/4/67 p. 11; 15/4/67 p. 2; 18/4/67 pp 1,2; 31/5/67 p.2; 11/6/67 p. 2; 16/6/67 p. 2; 17/6/67 p. 2; W J H Liversidge, Abingdon Council Minutes, pp 91-7 passim, 102, 106.

[16] Douglas Hurd, ‘Heath, Sir Edward Richard George (1916–2005)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2009; online edn, Sept 2012 [, accessed 20 June 2016]

[17] Routledge, Neave, pp 277, 358-9

[18] Routledge, Neave, pp 296-7

[19] Routledge, Neave. pp 268-297

[20] Routledge, Neave, p.311.

[21] Desmond Hamill, Pig in the middle:  the army in Northern Ireland 1969-84 (1985), p. 247

[22] Routledge, Neave, pp. 309, 358, 360

[23] Routledge, Neave, pp  340-7 esp pp 340-1; Tim Pat Coogan The Troubles (1995), pp 288-9; Martin Dillon, The Dirty War (1990), pp 278-308. For the conspiracy theories that have accumulated around the murder, see Routledge, Neave, pp 332-40 and [accessed 20 June 2016].

[24] Routledge, Neave,  p. 314

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