The Secret Files: UFOs in the House of Lords> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2]


After six months of work Patrick Stevens recommended that the Government “adopt an unequivocal and uncompromising line” on UFOs in their response to Clancarty. The task of representing the Government in the debate fell upon a distinguished wartime soldier, Lord Strabolgi, who was Labour’s chief whip in the Lords. After several meetings with Patrick Stevens they agreed to adopt an open-minded attitude to UFOlogy, taking the line “that there really are strange phenomena in the sky, but there is no need to introduce the highly questionable hypothesis of alien space craft.”

Privately, however, Stevens advised Defence Minister Fred Mulley “there is nothing to indicate that UFOlogy is anything but claptrap,” adding: “The UFO industry has prospered from equivocation and, with 1979 being heralded as ‘the year of the UFOs’, it is highly desirable for HMG to inject some massive common sense into the business.” But his draft closing speech was revised and altered at the eleventh hour on the direct orders of the Under Secretary of State for the RAF who, whilst claiming not to disagree with a more scathing approach, felt it “would benefit from being toned down so as not to pour quite so much scorn on ‘believers.’”

The big day came on 18 January 1979 in the middle of a national rail strike. But the industrial crisis did nothing to dampen interest in UFOs. The debate was one of the best attended ever held in the Lords, with sixty peers and hundreds of onlookers – including several famous UFOlogists - packing the public gallery.

Lord Clancarty opened the three hour session at 7pm “to call attention to the increasing number of sightings and landings on a world wide scale of UFOs, and to the need for an intra-governmental study of UFOs.” He wound up his speech by asking the Government reveal publicly what they knew about the phenomenon. And he appealed to the Labour Minister of Defence, Fred Mulley, to give a TV broadcast on the issue in the same way his French counterpart, M. Robert Galley, had done in 1974.

The pro-UFO lobby was supported eloquently by the Earl of Kimberley, a former Liberal spokesman on aerospace, who drew upon a briefing by the Aetherius Society for his UFO facts (see obituary, FT 199:24). Kimberley’s views were evident from an intervention he made when a Tory peer referred to the Jodrell Bank radio telescope’s failure to detect a single UFO: “Does the noble Lord not think it conceivable that Jodrell Bank says there are no UFOs because that is what it has been told to say?”

More than a dozen peers, including two eminent retired scientists, made contributions to the debate. Several reported their own sightings including Lord Gainford who gave a good description of the Cosmos rocket, “a bright white ball” like a comet flying low over the Scottish hills on New Year’s Eve. Others referred to the link between belief in UFOs and religious cults. In his contribution the Bishop of Norwich said he was concerned the UFO mystery “is in danger of producing a 20th century superstition” that sought to undermine the Christian faith.

The Government’s reply to this outbreak of Fortean anarchy was delivered in elegant old-world language by Lord Strabolgi, rising at 10.10 pm. Drawing upon the Ministry of Defence’s long experience he did his best to pour cold water on the idea of UFOs as alien spacecraft. As Patrick Stevens and his intelligence advisors watched from the spectator’s box Strabolgi outlined the colossal distances that would make visits from outer space unlikely. Referring to Clancarty’s claim that evidence existed of thousands of such instances he said “there is nothing to convince the Government that there has ever been a single visit by an alien spacecraft.” And he rounded off his presentation with a succinct response to Lord Clancarty’s appeal to the Government to reveal what it knew. “As for telling the public the truth about UFOs, the truth is simple,” he said. “There really are many strange phenomena in the sky, and these are invariably reported by rational people. But there is a wide range of natural explanations to account for such phenomena. There is nothing to suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that such phenomena are alien spacecraft.”

Although Clancarty failed to persuade the Defence Minister to make a televised statement he did succeed in making history by holding the debate in the face of considerable ridicule. One of his aims, to establish an all-party House of Lords UFO Study Group, did come to fruition. This group met irregularly for several years and attracted some prominent UFOlogists as speakers. Lord Clancarty died in a Sussex nursing home on 18 May 1995 age 83, a decade before the arrival of Freedom of Information Act.

Note: The Hansard transcript of the Lords UFO debate was published by Open Head Press in 1979, complete with an introduction by Lord Clancarty and notes by John Mitchell. The text was reprinted by HM Stationary Office Uncovered Editions in 2000.

Copyright David Clarke 2005

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