At 2:59 pm on March 30, 1979, a loud explosion shattered the peace of a spring-like afternoon outside the House of Commons in London. The blast occurred near the top of a concrete ramp leading up from a supposedly secure underground parking garage reserved for Members of Parliament. In the ensuing smoke and confusion, with alarms ringing, passers-by shouting in panic, and—a surreal touch—Big Ben tolling overhead, emergency responders found the wreckage of a metallic blue Vauxhall Cavalier.
The force of the blast had buckled both the hood and the roof, and bloodied shards of windshield glass were later retrieved on the street 40 yards away. People close to the scene before police dispersed onlookers saw a man, still apparently breathing, trapped behind the wheel of the car. His face was burned beyond recognition, and both his legs were severed. It was said that only his striped trousers and a mangled copy of the Daily Telegraph nearby identified him as a Conservative MP.
To the speaker of the House, who rushed outside to investigate, the carnage resembled “nothing less than a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell,” a view endorsed by hardened political correspondents in their accounts in the next morning’s press. The Blitz aside, this was the most serious assault on Britain’s parliament since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
The victim of the attack, who died in hospital an hour later, was a 63-year-old soldier, lawyer, and politician named Airey Neave. He was well known as Margaret Thatcher’s mentor and had been serving as the Northern Ireland minister in her shadow cabinet. It was a portfolio he was expected to retain following the general election that was to be held just five weeks later. Neave had been drawn to Thatcher in the middle 1970s not so much out of deep moral conviction—he once privately dismissed her rallying Commons speech against the Labour government’s monetary policy as an “ideological fart”—but because he regarded her as the best of the available party leadership candidates to take over from the “bovine” and “inept” former Prime Minister Ted Heath following the latter’s unenviable feat of losing two general elections in a single year.
When Neave came out in favor of Thatcher, he set an example to a large number of parliamentary colleagues, who had waited to see if a woman was acceptable to the party grandees before committing themselves. It’s sometimes forgotten how close the Conservative leadership election of February 1975 really was: Thatcher beat Heath by just 130 votes to 119 in the first ballot, then went into a second round in which the favorites were solid, middle-of-the-road Tory-establishment types like Willie Whitelaw and Geoffrey Howe. Neave’s influence behind the scenes was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing enough of the rank and file around to usher in Thatcher’s reign. “I feel like a puppet whose strings have been cut,” she said after his murder.
The question of who killed Airey Neave still regularly exercises the British media and conspiracy theorists 35 years later. The most likely candidate remains the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a small but even more rabid offshoot of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The INLA had announced themselves in April 1975 when their operatives gunned down the IRA organizer Billy McMillen while he was out shopping with his wife. (Two years later, the IRA in turn assassinated the INLA leader Seamus Costello. Then in 1982, the IRA man responsible was himself shot dead.)
Neave, the theory goes, would have made an uncompromising Northern Ireland minister after Mrs. Thatcher’s general election victory, and the more radical sectarian factions wanted him out of the way. The INLA lent credence to this view when they announced, “Retired terrorist and supporter of capital punishment, Airey Neave, got a taste of his own medicine when an INLA unit pulled off the operation of the decade and blew him to bits inside the ‘invincible’ Palace of Westminster.”
One of the unanticipated benefits of the Second World War was the body of battle-hardened ex-servicemen coming into power at Westminster in the 1960s and ’70s. But even among such exalted company, Airey Neave was something special. Volunteering for service immediately after war was declared in 1939, he soon found himself operating behind the lines in northern France as the Germans swiftly completed their occupation of the country. By all accounts, Neave took on the Nazis with the same brisk, no-nonsense style that he later brought to his dealings with the Irish extremists.
He was badly wounded and captured in the chaotic action around Calais in May 1940. Neave, then 24, was sent in an overcrowded troop train to the notorious Stalag XX-A prison complex near Thorn in German-occupied western Poland. He immediately escaped, but was captured again a few days later while trying to smuggle himself onto a ship at Danzig. Though not one to dwell on the ordeal, he later conceded that his subsequent interview with the Gestapo was “not pleasant.”
He was then sent to Oflag 1V-C, better known as Colditz, an apparently impenetrable gothic castle built on a hill spur high above the Mulde river between Dresden and Leipzig. Readers need only to think of Alcatraz—though more heavily fortified, and with the inhospitable Ore Mountains taking the place of San Francisco Bay—to get the flavor. This was widely considered a fate as dire as anything the prisoner-of-war system had to offer. Neave made his first escape attempt just six weeks later, though this, too, ended in failure when the dye in his hastily contrived German uniform began to run in the rain, revealing the British army tunic beneath.
After further prolonged interrogation, he was returned to captivity. Although systematically starved and maltreated while in custody, Neave, with a certain inevitability, made yet another break for it in January 1942, exiting from the cast of a Saturday-night prison revue by way of a trap-door beneath the stage. Traveling by foot and train, he then made it some 400 miles to the Swiss border and from there onto a boat to England—the first British officer to successfully effect a “home run” from Colditz.
After that, he worked successively as an intelligence agent for MI9—an escape and evasion organization for Allied servicemen—and on the investigating panel of the postwar International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg. In September 1945, it fell to him to deliver the formal indictments to Goering and the other Nazi top brass in their cells.
Neave remarked that none of the accused men had shown the slightest emotion when receiving the charges that they had been involved in the most grotesque crimes against humanity. “They were a motley crew,” he noted. The only one who had mildly impressed him was Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, until lately head of the German armed forces and de facto War Minister, who snapped to attention when handed the charge-sheet. There was an irony to the scene: following Neave’s escape from Colditz the Nazis had put a price on his head, and Keitel himself had signed the order.
Born in 1916, Neave grew up in an eight-bedroom home in the Knightsbridge area of London. His father was an entomologist with a large trust fund; his mother—part of a colorful Anglo-Irish tapestry largely composed of soldiers and explorers—succumbed in her forties to cancer. Neave’s formative years were spent at boarding school and Oxford. Having done “literally no work,” he insisted, he graduated in 1938 with a third-class degree in jurisprudence. Legend maintains that, to celebrate the fact, Neave threw a party for himself and 40 guests, and between them they went on to consume “literally hundreds” of bottles of champagne. He gave a more modest figure. “It was 97,” he once told me.
Neave may not have been a model student, but in at least one area he was a remarkably prescient one. In 1933, while still a schoolboy at Eton, he had written a prize-winning essay analyzing the consequences of Hitler’s rise to power and concluding that “this means war,” a feat of prediction beyond most world statesmen of the day. Neave’s friend Leonard Cheshire recalled that “on arriving at Oxford, he bought and read the full works of Clausewitz, and on being asked why, answered that since war was coming, it was only sensible to learn as much as possible about the art of waging it.” Neave was part of that fast disappearing generation of Britons determined to go through life without whining, blaming, or emoting—and when he saw a problem, whether it was that of a fascist dictatorship or Irish terrorism, it was his practice to meet it head on.
After a failed attempt in 1950, Neave was elected three years later as the Conservative MP for Abingdon, then an agreeably sleepy market town just outside Oxford. I was later at boarding school nearby and thus had the opportunity to meet this, it seemed to us, impossibly exotic figure as he strode about in his immaculate pinstripe suit and Brigade tie—an ensemble he favored even after many fellow Tories had abandoned themselves to polyester slacks and safari jackets.
Neave once remarked that when he first arrived there the area had been a quiet yachtsman’s haven with a riverfront park, four churches, and a pub. After about 1970, it was “like the setting for one of those biker films where the decent folk are suddenly invaded by Hell’s Angels,” a neon-lit urban sprawl where feral children ran wild in the streets at night, “very much, alas, a snapshot of modern Britain,” he told me.
His air of urbane High Tory cool wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Sharp featured, with a low, hoarse voice and a tendency to gaze unsmilingly at his listener, he struck at least one noted political correspondent as “slightly sinister.” Without delving too far into the briar-patch of psychiatry, I have a slightly different take on Neave, who certainly lacked the conventional politician’s dollop of synthetic charm. To me he seemed to have more of a child’s elementary sense of justice, and with it, perhaps, a child’s touch of egocentricity and petulance.
Neave saw socialism as destroying Britain and didn’t see the Tory party of Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, and Edward Heath as much of a bulwark against the tide. By the early 1970s the country had reached a state it is now difficult to imagine. In the final days of the Heath government inflation was running at more than 30 percent and rising fast. The pound had lost 70 percent of its value on the international exchanges in just three years. Basic living standards were deteriorating badly. Thanks to a protracted miners’ strike, at one point the entire country went onto a three-day work week in order to conserve electricity, and even then we all too often sat up at night in frigid rooms eating tinned Spam and reading flimsily printed newspapers by candlelight. There may have been no village in the Carpathians more primitive than London in the hangover years following the Swinging Sixties.
Airey Neave was not one to embrace the view that there was anything inevitable about Britain’s decline to banana republic status. Although a certain amount of educated guesswork has to apply here, it’s reasonably safe to say that he never fully abandoned his connections to the intelligence services, and he actively explored with a few like-minded individuals the possibility of engineering a limited right-wing coup in the years immediately before the Thatcher revolution. This went under the codename “Northern Command,” and Neave once allowed that there had been “some talk” of raising a private militia in order to enforce a “patriotic agenda … something to kick the political elites up the arse.”
It was this vested elitism that he thought was so ruinous to so many ordinary Britons. Neave once told me that he was tired of all the difference-splitting among Britain’s main political parties. “To really succeed, being moderate doesn’t get you very far. In government, it’s doing the unthinkable that improves people’s lives.”
I should add that in my experience Neave was a deeply moral man who wanted Thatcher to succeed not just because she was right but because had she failed, it would have discouraged future governments from taking on critically needed reforms. Far from being a swivel-eyed fanatic, his main concern in the months immediately before his death was whether the government machine was “still capable of delivering sane policies” for Britain, as opposed to merely providing a form of sustained decline-management.
His greatest political triumph was to have guided Thatcher through the deeply skeptical—and for that matter, misogynistic—Tory rank and file of 40 years ago, and it was the bitterest of ironies that his murder came at the very hour when parliament was being dissolved for the general election that would bring Thatcher to power.
About a year before he died, Neave gave a friend in Oxford a refreshingly candid and succinct summary of what he planned to do in Northern Ireland. On paper, it sounds simple enough. “First,” he said, “the IRA will be invited to decommission their weapons. And following that, they will be encouraged to embrace democratic politics, to complete their disarmament, and to make a final break with their paramilitary past.” He left unsaid precisely what he meant by the words “invited” and “encouraged.” I’m not saying that Neave would have single-handedly brought the centuries-old Troubles to an end. But in view of his record, it’s probable he would have judged the men of violence by their deeds and not by their words.
For all the conspiracy theories in the weeks and months following Neave’s death, some of which implicated the security services, it’s now generally agreed that a small cell of Irish republicans decided that on the whole they would not care to see him in a position of executive power, and acted accordingly—“just as any person with adequate levels of oxygen in the brain might have known,” a future British cabinet minister told me. It remains unclear how precisely they brought off their crime in the supposedly impregnable precincts of the Houses of Parliament. No one was ever charged with Neave’s murder, and the relevant papers are marked as “Closed and Retained” in the British national archives.
All we know for sure is that Neave was one of an officially estimated 3,526 “conflict-related fatalities” (not to mention the roughly half-million injured) of the Troubles in the years 1969-2001. The murder of Airey Neave deprived us of an odd, brave, brilliant man who was refreshingly free of the arch posturing and Napoleonic self-obsession of so many politicians, and whose peculiarly cruel fate was to survive Keitel’s Wehrmacht only to fall to an assassin’s bomb.
Christopher Sandford is a Seattle-based writer and author of The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years.