The Secret Files»
UFOs in History»
originally published in Fortean Times 201 (2005)
In the last of his series on British Government files released under the Freedom of Information Act, DAVID CLARKE gives the inside story of the day when UFOs were debated in Parliament.
Memories of 1978-79 in Britain are dominated by the industrial chaos which became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” But in the New Year the gloomy headlines were momentarily replaced by news of a dramatic UFO flap in Europe. On 31 December hundreds of New Year revellers spotted a blazing UFO streaking across British skies. This sky spectacular was soon explained away as sightings of debris from a Soviet rocket, Cosmos 749, burning up in the upper atmosphere.
But this sensation was quickly followed by news of a remarkable film showing mysterious lights seen by the crew and passengers of a freighter aircraft off the east coast of New Zealand. The film was shown on BBC TV news and quickly became a worldwide sensation. These developments must have seemed like a dream come true for Brinsley le Poer Trench (Lord Clancarty) who was writing the opening speech for his historic House of Lords UFO Debate. Questions about UFO sightings and Government investigations had been asked in the House of Commons as early as 1953, but the motion Clancarty intended to present in the Upper Chamber was unique in being the first – and last – full debate on UFOs held in the British Parliament.
Lord Clancarty was introduced to UFOs by fellow aristocrat Desmond Leslie via his 1953 best-seller with George Adamski, Flying Saucers Have Landed. Two years later he helped to found the magazine Flying Saucer Review which he edited from 1956-59. With his stock in UFOlogy rising he went on to set up his own organisation Contact and wrote seven books on UFOs. Years before Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronauts” became fashionable Clancarty believed that humans had been seeded by aliens who had visited Earth millions of years ago. In a famous BBC TV interview of 1977 he expanded on this theory by claiming the aliens had bases inside the Earth and their craft entered the atmosphere by flying out from holes in the poles. The ever-so-British eccentricity displayed by Clancarty in his TV appearances is equally evident in the transcript of the debate preserved in Hansard
Clancarty succeeded his half brother as 8th Earl in 1976 and immediately used his seat in the Lords to pressurise the Government on the UFO issue. His elevation to the Lords added to the problems faced by the Ministry of Defence who were already fending off an attempt by Sir Eric Gairy, the President of Grenada, to promote an international UFO study funded by the United Nations. Britain refused to sanction such a move and was equally evasive when Clancarty asked the MoD what it knew about the French Government’s UFO project. These tactics did nothing to alter his conviction that the MoD was involved in a cover-up of UFO evidence.
Originally Clancarty intended to make his move in the Lords on 12 June 1978 but his motion was withdrawn at the last minute, according to MoD papers released in 2005, because he feared poor attendance before the summer recess. It was re-tabled for a full debate later that year and Patrick Stevens, a former soldier and head of the MoD’s UFO branch S4 warned colleagues at Whitehall: “We do not take this lightly because Lord Clancarty is an acknowledged expert on UFOs, whilst MoD has no experts on UFOs – for much the same reasons as we have no experts on levitation or black magic.”
Stevens added that public interest in UFOs was high because of massive media interest in the wake of the British release of the Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He warned “there is a risk that the Government will be persuaded to conduct a study of UFOs, or at least to examine the mass of evidence that Lord Clancarty and his fellow UFOlogists have assembled in the last 30 years.” And he added a clever sting in the tail: “Should the Government’s defences break, I need hardly warn you that responsibility for the study could very likely fall on [our] department!”
Research revealed there had never been any British “scientific study of UFOs” that Stevens could draw upon for ammunition against Clancarty. Instead he had to rely upon the opinions of military and scientific advisors in the RAF and the Defence Intelligence Staff whose duty it was to examine UFO reports for evidence of a threat to defence. One of the most revealing came from Group Captain Neil Colvin, who was the most senior officer overseeing the RAF’s air defences. Predictably, Colvin said that the vast majority of UFO reports received by the MoD had “a rational explanation.” He in turn took advice from the Ballistic Missile tracking station in North Yorkshire, RAF Fylingdales, who said that as in 1978 there were more than 4,600 pieces of space junk orbiting the earth of which 65 were likely to pass over the UK and 20 percent of these would be visible as they burned up on re-entry.
“Of the [UFO] reports reviewed to date we can find no evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to either earth, its atmosphere or near space,” Colvin advised MoD. But he was reluctant to dismiss the entire phenomenon as nonsense. “The almost total lack of primary radar observations of unnatural phenomena leads us to be sceptical of Lord Clancarty’s claims,” Colvin wrote, “although we would not wish to state categorically that “UFOs” do not exist.” For their part DI55, the intelligence branch responsible for UFOs, fell back upon the vast distances involved in space travel and an old favourite first invoked by the Flying Saucer Working Party in 1951. This was Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is often the best, and for UFOs this equated with a range of natural phenomena and hoaxes. »