Andy McSmith's Diary: After 80 years adrift, a memorial finally lands for doomed airship


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Indy Politics

HM Airship R101, the technological wonder of its day, set off from Cardington in Bedfordshire, on 4 October 1930, bound for Karachi on its first international flight, with Lord Thomson, Ramsay MacDonald’s Secretary of State for Air and other eminent passengers on board. Crowds watched it sail gracefully over London, but over northern France, it went into a fatal nose dive. Of the 54 passengers and crew, 46 were killed outright, and two died from their injuries.

When the news crossed the Channel, it was as if the whole country went into shock. The 48 coffins laid in state in Westminster Hall for a day, and 89,272 visitors filed reverently past. That was a rarity in itself: there have only been nine occasions in history when anyone has lain in state in Westminster Hall, and all the other eight featured royalty or former prime ministers – Edward VII, George V, George VI, their widows, Alexandra, Mary, and Elizabeth, and Gladstone and Churchill.

That might have been all that Parliament did to mark this now forgotten tragedy, were it not that the husband of the former Labour MP Angela Smith, now Baroness Smith of Basildon, is fascinated by airships. Nigel Smith came upon a cutting from the Daily Mirror, dated 11 October 1930, suggesting that a plaque was to be installed to commemorate the dead. The Baroness made inquiries and learnt that for a plaque to laid, the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Lord Speaker, and the Commons Speaker all to agree, and they never had. But now they have. It took months of haggling, but today, if you keep your eyes down as you enter Westminster Hall by the main entrance, the first thing you will see in the stone floor is a shiny new brass plaque.

Speaking to the Speaker?

I suppose it was because he was so busy preparing for the evening’s plaque-laying ceremony that the Speaker, John Bercow, missed today’s Spectator annual awards lunch, though he was invited. Unusually, this year’s Parliamentarian of the Year was not an MP: it was Lord Rogers, the retiring Commons clerk, who has had a falling out with Bercow.

The Speaker reputedly told him once to “f*** off”. In his acceptance speech, Lord Rogers said he had “every confidence common sense and good governance will prevail before long.” What could he have meant by that?

Bussing in Lib Dem voters

“You can get more people on a bus in Bristol than who voted for you,” said LBC’s Nick Ferrari, taunting his guest Nick Clegg about his party’s dismal showing in Rochester and Strood.

That was a bit harsh. As far as I know, the maximum capacity of a Bristol bus is fewer than 80 passengers. The Lib Dems picked up 349 votes in Rochester. To be fair, he should have said “five buses in Bristol”.

Figuring out Monckton

Lord Monckton, Ukip’s former leader in Scotland, has such weird ideas about homosexuality that I begin to wonder if there is something the matter. Last year he made comments about gays at a Christmas dinner for the Crewe branch of Ukip that were so unpleasant that one activist resigned from the party there and then.

Monckton’s latest contributions to the general fund of human wisdom, posted on WorldNetDaily, a right-wing American website, included the claims that “most” sexual relationships between gay men last “as little as a few hours”, that gays have an “average” of 500 to 1,000 partners over a lifetime, and some have 20,000.

To reach 20,000 sexual partners, you would need to find a new one every day for almost 55 years – rather difficult if, as Monckton also asserted, gays lived “short, miserable lives”.