Airey Neave was my very dear and deeply trusted friend. When we were in Opposition, he was head of my Private Office, a Member of the Shadow Cabinet and our Spokesman on Northern Ireland.
Had he lived, he would have been a Member of the Cabinet.
But just after 3 o'clock in the afternoon following the day the General Election was announced, Airey, who had come through all manner of personal trials in the war; who held the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre; whose escape from Colditz, the prison which the Germans claimed was escape-proof, had become a legend in his lifetime; who played a prominent part at the Nuremberg trials—Airey the quiet, Airey the soft-spoken, was murdered by a terrorist's bomb.
So, on an afternoon in early Spring, the gentlest of men, who utterly abhorred and was sickened by violence, became its victim.
What sort of man was this war-time soldier, whom the Germans could not contain and who had such a quietly powerful influence on the politics of peace?
He was, I think, the most unassuming man I have ever met, and I had known him for 30 years. Despite the heavy responsibilities which he carried, I never once heard him raise his voice.
But, as with many distinguished men and women, the calm and quiet exterior concealed an inner fire and strength.
Beneath the natural modesty of manner was a will of steel and beyond that, guiding and infusing everything he did, a simple Christian faith.
He was extraordinarily painstaking and diligent. When others took a little time to relax and enjoy themselves, Airey would be toiling in that tiny room at the House of Commons or in his constituency, or in Northern Ireland. And if one uttered a mild protest, the answer, quietly given, was always the same: “There is work to do.”
Looking back it seems as if he may perhaps have had a premonition that there was not much time for him to do it. [end p25]
In the Autumn of last year, Airey's study of the Nuremberg trials was published. In her foreword, Rebecca West wrote of Airey:
“It is, I think, against his principles to care much about danger, but he would do all he could to spare the rest of us unnecessary risk”.
[Following phrase in speaking text: “Words written with astonishing insight”.]
In the final chapter, Airey reflected on the meaning of the Nuremberg experience which had a lasting influence on his life, and the great struggle of good against evil, freedom against tyranny, that the war embodied.
“Before our eyes”, he wrote, “the problems of race and terrorism are a frightening reminder of Hitler's example. Those who use terror to gain their political ends are the heirs of his Revolution of Destruction however much they may claim to represent opposing doctrines”.
It is deeply poignant to recall those words today. But I want to recall something else Airey wrote at the time that his book was published. He gave me a copy, with this inscription:
“Remembering that tyranny has many sides and freedom but one.”
If it is possible for a single sentence to sum up a man, that sums up Airey Neave. Certainly none could serve better as his epitaph.
Early in manhood he was a dedicated warrior for freedom, against whatever threats it faced, and no matter in what guise they were clothed.
His life was all of a piece to a degree that is given to few of us to achieve. Yet his experience was wide and varied.
As a soldier he was a most unlikely-looking hero and would have shuddered to have that word applied to him; yet hero he was.
As a politician, he had not an ounce of flamboyance, yet he was a master of his craft, with a wry, dry humour that missed nothing.
He did not think of himself primarily as an author; yet he possessed an evocative, lucid style of great power and subtlety.
And shining through all was a generous and compassionate nature, full of unobtrusive warmth and feeling.
Unobtrusive—that was Airey's way, but open and bold, if need be, as in his fight to secure the release of his old enemy, Rudolph Hess, from Spandau. [end p26]
This, then is the man whom we are gathered to remember. A rare man, for whose life and burning love of liberty we give thanks—as we do for the great dignity and bearing of NeaveDiana, who lived as he did, with danger, and who has no hatred but only thankfulness for 37 years of happiness with the man she loved.
Airey's faith—deeply felt, softly spoken—was that we should turn again to the old truths which some had thought that we could live without. Today, who can doubt that he was right?
Airey is gone, and those of us who were his friends miss him more than we can possibly say.
But the war against tyranny; the struggle for freedom which he fought, and for which he died, goes on, and will go on as long as man continues on earth.
Which is why I know that I shall always hear a soft voice saying: “There is work to do”.
There is indeed.
And the best of all memorials to Airey Neave, man of peace, taken by violence, is for us who remain, and those who come after us, never to weaken, never to weary of the struggle, but to hold fast, as he held fast, to the end, until that work is done.