The Man Who Was Saturday: The Extraordinary Life of Airey Neave by Patrick Bishop

Airey Neave sprang to fame as the first British prisoner to make a home run from Colditz. He entered the Commons, for a long time got nowhere much, and then played a key role in Margaret Thatcher’s victory over Edward Heath.

In 1979, he was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, a few weeks before he would have become Northern Ireland Secretary.

Patrick Bishop has written a very enjoyable life of him. His style is understated, which suits the subject. Neave was quiet, unobtrusive, hard-working, thorough, at his best working in the background, “saying little, hearing much”, as Bishop puts it while describing the period as Thatcher’s campaign manager.

And Neave’s wartime exploits were so audacious they require no stylistic embellishment. The story of the escape from Colditz, which I do not think I have read since I was a boy, is as exciting as ever, and less familiar than it used to be.

Before that, Bishop gives us the siege of Calais, where the Germans had to be distracted and held up if the British Expeditionary Force was to have any chance of being evacuated at Dunkirk.

What a mixture of fear, confusion, incompetence, improvisation and bravery the British performance was. Neave was in charge of a searchlight battery, and most of his men were neither trained as infantry, nor equipped for that role. As he himself later wrote:

“This was my first experience of street fighting and I was acutely frightened. It was difficult to understand how others could remain so collected under fire. Throughout the battle, the noise was so great that if you were more than ten yards away it was impossible to understand what was said to you.”

Bishop notes that at no point does Neave present himself as “anything other than a tiny actor in great events, often confused, frightened and ineffective, but always desperately concerned to do the right thing”.

He is wounded, the bullet passing half an inch from his heart, and is taken prisoner by the Germans as he lies at a regimental aid post in a tunnel under one of the bastions on the ramparts, erected round Calais by Vauban for Louis XIV, which in 1940 formed the main line of defence.

Neave witnessed what he calls “the terrifying ignorance of those conducting this campaign from Whitehall”. This theme runs through the book.

Here is a member of the Establishment, educated like his father and grandfather before him at Eton, who is well aware that authority is only tolerable if it is quite often treated as ridiculous. Bishop is good on Eton, neither unduly impressed nor stupidly contemptuous, and sees the continuity with Neave’s later experiences:

“The boys had a complicated relationship with authority. From the outside, the regime seemed strictly hierarchical…The reality was more subtle and interesting…Like his peers, he enjoyed finding ways to get round irritating restrictions. He also liked to challenge authority when the chance arose and the odds of getting away with it were favourable. It was good for morale, a reminder that those who ruled the school did not have it all their own way…as in prisons, order in school essentially depended on the consent of the inmates.”

Neave himself wrote, while describing his first, unsuccessful attempt to escape from the Germans, that “no one who has not known the pain of imprisonment understands the meaning of Liberty”. Here is a paradox: that to understand freedom you must be deprived of it.

He at length managed to get out of Colditz disguised as a German officer, using his captors’ reverence for authority to outwit them. Looking back on his escape, he called it “the great emotional event of my life”.

Soon after reaching Switzerland, he was recalled to London to help run the escape lines from occupied Europe – the period when he took the code name “Saturday” which is used in the title of this book. He observes that his women agents are every bit as good as the men.

There follows his uninspiring parliamentary career. He knows his stuff, works hard on behalf of his constituents, writes successful books about his wartime adventures, but is no orator, and like many MPs then and now, feels he is under-achieving.

He also says it takes him 20 years to recover from the war, though he knows how fortunate he is to have married Diana Giffard, who like him has worked in intelligence, and who throws herself into political life.

By September 1973 he is losing patience with the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and confides to his diary:

“Diana and I discussed whether we can stand him much longer. He lacks any idea of how to handle MPs or their wives and has annoyed the country by his irritating habit of telling people how good things are…The country is only going to work for somebody who inspires and leads them, but who is this going to be? Heath has now got everybody on the wrong side.”

Neave already regards Margaret Thatcher as a possible successor – an intuition, or observation, which puts him well ahead of the game. In July 1973, he quotes from Wordsworth’s poem “She Was a Phantom of Delight” when proposing a vote of thanks to Thatcher after she has spoken at a school in his Abingdon constituency.

He had resorted to the same poem in the dedication to Little Cyclone, his book about Andrée de Jongh, one of his most courageous wartime agents. The poem ends:

“A perfect Woman, nobly planned,

To warn, to comfort and command;

And yet a Spirit still, and bright

With something of angelic light.”

In the 1970s, many Tories were still doubtful about having a woman leader. Neave did not share those reservations. He saw that Thatcher might well have what was needed.

He proceeded to run a brilliant campaign for her. All this is described in richer detail in the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography, but Bishop gives a short, lucid account which reminds one of the great uncertainty of this as of most Tory leadership battles.

Edward du Cann, to whom Neave also felt a degree of commitment, had to decide not to stand. Sir Keith Joseph, whom Thatcher had agreed to back, had to blot his copybook and retire from the contest.

And Neave had to run a very astute campaign. He was good at divining MPs’ true intentions, he compiled unusually accurate figures, and he did not share them with the wider world.

His experience in intelligence had taught him the folly of giving your enemy a true account of your position. Let the enemy think he knew what you were doing.

So while Heath’s handlers exaggerated his strength, in the final stages of the contest Neave downplayed Thatcher’s chances.

This meant that the many Conservative MPs who were totally fed up with Heath, not least because he had been bloody rude both to them and to their wives, felt they could safely vote against him, without handing victory to Thatcher, about whom a considerable number of them harboured doubts.

The aim of quite a few Conservative MPs was to give Heath a jolt so he would start to behave himself. Big figures like Willie Whitelaw, who felt obliged to remain loyal to Heath, believed they could come in on the second ballot once the incumbent had been wounded.

But to general amazement, Thatcher defeated Heath in the first round by 130 votes to 119, with 16 votes cast for Hugh Fraser. A second round of voting was required, but she was now unstoppable, and on 4th February 1975 she became the new leader.

While others hung back, she and Neave had shown the courage and audacity needed to pull off an implausible victory, beneath the noses of an arrogant hierarchy. It was a feat which recalled his wartime exploits.

Fortune had favoured the brave, and the timing was perfect. Neave, as Bishop says, had grasped the crucial factor, namely that Ted Heath was finished. That factor, and the ability to spot it, are of particular relevance just now.

According to Neave’s family, it was at his request that she made him Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. Bishop reminds us that the number of deaths among civilians, security forces and paramilitaries peaked in 1972 at 496, and was still 263 in 1973, 303 in 1974 and 267 in 1975: figures which tend to be overlooked by people who regard Brexit as the worst crisis in living memory.

So Neave took on a very tough portfolio. He believed the priority was to smash the IRA, and he said so. He became a target, and took little in the way of security precautions. His London address was in Who’s Who and his car was parked outside.

The terrorists planted a bomb which was designed to go off as he drove uphill, and which on 30th March 1979 inflicted mortal injuries as he left the underground car park at the Commons.

Nobody has been charged with his murder. Bishop, who knows the terrorist beat, has applied under the Freedom of Information Act to get hold of the relevant Home Office and Metropolitan Police files, and has been rebuffed at every turn. The papers will not be released until 2079.

Neave belonged to a generation whose lives were formed in war, but his story, of a man who knew his weaknesses but was determined to do the right thing, has a far wider resonance.

Kemi Badenoch, who was born the year after he was assassinated and is now MP for Saffron Walden, named him as one of her heroes and went on: “The escape from Colditz is I think probably the coolest thing any British politician has ever done.”