Obituary: Baroness Airey of Abingdon
Tuesday 01 December 1992
AIREY NEAVE used to take delight in one particular personal story. It relates to a period shortly after his marriage to Diana Giffard in 1942. Both were doing highly secret work in the War Office; but they never spoke about it, even at home. One day, however, Airey found himself in the same corridor (a restricted area) as Diana. 'And we had,' Neave used to say, 'one of those ludicrous 'What are you doing here?' confrontations.' Reticence is, even to this day, the most marked characteristic of most - though not all - of the men and women who worked in Intelligence during the Second World War. After Airey Neave's brutal assassination in 1979 there were many approaches to Diana to sanction a biography of him. She asked me to spread the word among the writing classes that she would, in no circumstances, countenance such a project.
However, after her husband went into politics, Diana became, perforce, something of a hostess. She had an elfin beauty, great charm, and a ready wit. Theirs was an enviably happy marriage and, after his death, she was more than ready to talk about him in private - but never for publication. Just after the general election she took his place at a rather splendid lunch. The host, who did not know her, asked me to sit next to her. I enquired whether she minded talking about Airey. She replied that she loved talking about him. Much later, at my home, she said that she had talked to him every day since his murder, and felt that he was guiding her in everything she did.
There was, however, little doubt that, while Airey Neave enjoyed his secret life in the war, she did not. Like so many young women of her background (she was born into a prosperous family in Wolverhampton) she began her war work as a nurse - in her case at an RAF hospital. Her talent was spotted by a Foreign Office scout, and she was moved into Intelligence. She was particularly concerned with liaison work with the Polish government in exile's Ministry of Information and, though she was as discreet about this as she was about everything else in her wartime background, it is reasonably well known that her work was concerned with propaganda.
Once the war was over she devoted herself to her husband's political career, and to a number of charities in his constituency of Abingdon. He was, in effect, Margaret Thatcher's Chief of Staff, the man who had guided Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975. Since Abingdon was a safe Tory seat he did not really need help in the constituency during the 1979 general election campaign. Diana promptly volunteered her services to Conservative Central Office. There she would do any work, however menial. She made the tea and the coffee when required, stuffed election material into envelopes, emptied the rubbish, and effectively charmed Conservative agents and candidates who were despairing of a Tory victory. I have one particularly vivid memory of this brief period.
Two days after Airey Neave's death I walked into Conservative Central Office for the daily preparation for the morning press conference. I was astonished to see Diana Neave at her desk, sorting through the usual mountain of mail. I expressed my astonishment. She said, simply, 'Airey would have wanted me to do what I could. He badly wanted Margaret to win this election.' Win it Margaret Thatcher duly did and proposed the widow of her closest confidant for a peerage. Diana took her husband's given name as her title. 'It makes me', she explained, 'feel closer to him.'
In the years thereafter she devoted herself to causes in which they were both interested. She was a trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, of the Dorneywood Trust, and of the Stansted Park Foundation. She was President of the Anglo-Polish Conservative Society. Reflecting a particular interest, she was also a trustee of the Imperial War Museum. All of these occupations she took very seriously, but discharged them with the vivacity that was inseparable from her character.
It is - and will be - impossible for those who knew them both to separate Airey and Diana Neave in their memories. They were a remarkable partnership. But Diana was by no means junior to him. In addition to her charm she had a will of steel, and showed impeccable dedication to the causes she supported.
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