There are numerous monuments celebrating the lives of great people. It was Newton who encapsulated greatness when he said that all he had achieved had been due to ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Scant attention is usually paid to the owners of those shoulders in politics. Would Tony Blair have reached such heights without the aid of Peter Mandelson? The debt owed by Churchill to Brendan Bracken is of note. It was Bracken who recommended ‘studied silence’ as a way for Churchill to avoid an ambush by Chamberlain, who wanted to ensure that Halifax would succeed as Prime Minister. Without Bracken’s advice, a Halifax administration might have compromised with Germany, ushering in a dark age of Nazi domination of Europe.
Margaret Thatcher is widely credited as the person who turned Britain away from the creeping decline leading to a socialist one-party state and instead towards a free-market economy whose ideas were copied globally. Her resolution in the face of communism, partnered with Ronald Reagan, brought the USSR to its knees and ended the Cold War without major conflict in Europe. However, Mrs. Thatcher had help to gain office, in the form of Airey Neave. Had Neave not managed Mrs Thatcher’s leadership campaign, it is likely that she would have not stood against Edward Heath for Conservative Party leader in 1975, and if she had stood, she would not have won. Instead of being transformed, Britain would have remained the ‘sick man of Europe’, descending into a collectivist mediocrity as entrepreneurs and capital gave up and moved on.
So my nomination for a statue is Airey Neave, a man whose experiences and achievements could fill two or more lifetimes.
Born into a wealthy family, he served his country well and gave back more than he received. In 1933, while still a pupil at Eton, Neave predicted a new war as consequence of the rise of Nazism in Germany. He based this on his first-hand experience while staying in Germany aged 17 to learn the language. Instead of acting on this prediction to avoid danger, Neave studied the works of the military theorist Clausewitz more than his course in jurisprudence at Oxford, and also served in the Territorial Army. He saw danger and was ready to fight it.
When war broke out, Neave fought in France in 1940 as the Phoney War turned into the Battle of France. He was part of the rearguard that fought off the invading stormtroopers at Calais, where he was wounded and then captured just as the Dunkirk evacuations started. He stood his ground so others could fight another day.
Neave’s war was not over even though he was behind barbed wire in Poland, and he escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp in May 1941. Recaptured the same month, he was sent to Colditz. The camp, set in a castle and guarded by a battalion of troops, was designed to contain seasoned escapers of all nationalities, and was meant to be escape-proof. Nobody told Neave that. Fluent in German, Neave and a Dutch officer disguised themselves as German officers and simply walked out of the main entrance in January 1942. Three days later, they were in Switzerland. It was the first successful escape from Colditz. Neave resisted the Nazis without firing a shot.
He applied his knowledge of escaping and Gestapo techniques by spending the rest of the war working for MI9, a secret organisation that supported escape attempts by activities such as redesigning uniforms to incorporate escape aids, relaying intelligence, and organising safe routes across German-occupied territory. While not all escapes succeeded, they achieved a secondary aim of tying down German security forces. Neave helped take the war to German soil.
At the end of the war, Neave had other ways to serve his country as a member of the British contingent of the War Crimes Executive, being delegated to investigate the criminal activities of the industrial giant Krupp. He thus helped bring Nazi supporters to account.
It was Neave, representing civilised humanity, who served the indictments on the leading Nazi war criminals in their cells in Nuremberg. He looked them in the eye in the name of the human race.
Neave continued with his Army career until 1951, and entered Parliament on his second attempt in 1953. His political career was set back by a heart attack in 1959. However there are reliable reports that then-rising star Edward Heath had a hand in holding him back from any further consideration for posts in government or opposition. If this was the case, Heath made an enemy of the wrong person.
By the early 1970s, it was increasingly clear that the Conservative Party’s period of governance had merely been a continuation of Labour’s socialist agenda. In power, socialism had not been turned back, but was resting until it could advance further under Labour. The post-war consensus had been broken by the unions by 1969, when they decided to eliminate the profitability of UK businesses through a series of strikes. The Heath government failed abjectly to reverse the trend. The succeeding minority Labour administration governed only with the consent of unions which dominated their members using violence and intimidation. For the second time, Neave saw danger approaching this country.
He knew what was going wrong, but his party’s current leadership did not have the answers. There had to be a change of leader to strip socialism out of the productive economy before it all failed and was nationalised. Free markets had to be restored to the British people. But who could challenge Heath? In Margaret Thatcher, Neave found the right person for the job at the critical time.
Neave was crafty. Heath had been the first Conservative leader elected by MPs, and a new ballot was called in 1975 with Mrs Thatcher as the challenger. Heath had lost three of the four general elections he had contested as leader and had to go because he was not listening to his party. Neave went round the disgruntled MPs at Westminster suggesting that they voted for Mrs Thatcher just to give Heath a bit of a shock and to make him change policy, but pointing out that she wasn’t going to win. What actually happened was that Mrs Thatcher won the first ballot outright. Heath dropped out and there was a second ballot with new candidates. Mrs Thatcher won again and the rest is history. But it is a history Neave was not to share.
Mrs Thatcher made him shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, and it was expected that in government he would carry on the good work of Labour’s Roy Mason, whom the Army loved, to keep the peace and reduce tension while running the terrorists into the ground. Given his legal and military background, he was set for the job. His opponents knew this too.
Neave was murdered by a car bomb in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster just as the General Election of 1979 was called.
All unnatural deaths of public figures invite conspiracy theories, and Neave’s murder, claimed by the Irish National Liberation Army, was no different. However Neave’s achievements are clear. An early resister of Nazism, war hero, successful escaper, intelligence operative, part of the team who ensured that the Nuremberg trials could not be regarded as a kangaroo court of the victors over the vanquished, patriot and original Thatcherite, it is reasonable to argue that without Neave, Mrs Thatcher would not have gained the position she needed to save Britain and the West, and the country would have slid into socialist irrelevance to the delight of the Kremlin and the dismay of free people everywhere.
Mrs Thatcher and people who love freedom all stand on the shoulders of this giant.
Now, more than ever, we need people like Airey Neave. He should be celebrated and remembered.