‘A cocoon of myth and fantasy’ – Did Tony Benn propagate ‘fake news’ during the 1975 referendum on EEC membership?

By Xavier Häpe (https://www.flickr.com/photos/vier/192493917/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The term ‘fake news’ has exploded in popularity ever since President-elect Donald Trump first tweeted those words in December 2016. It has permeated our political discourse to such an extent that the Collins Dictionary named it their ‘Word of the Year’ for 2017. Whereas Trump parrots ‘fake news’ in his attempt to discredit legitimate journalism, the term more accurately describes the propagation of outright lies – those consumed mostly by Trump’s own supporters. This clearly poses a serious threat to democracy, and has led to the suggestion that we are now living in a ‘post-truth world’.

Nonetheless, political lying is a phenomenon which far predates Donald Trump. The most enduring image of the 2016 Brexit referendum is that of the Vote Leave battle bus, emblazoned with the lie ‘We send the EU £350 million a week / let’s fund our NHS instead’. Other patent falsehoods include the claim that Turkey would soon be joining the EU and that there was no chance of Britain leaving the Single Market. However, it might be possible to trace the propagation of what could be described as ‘fake news’ even further back within the history of Euroscepticism

During the 1975 EEC referendum, Tony Benn claimed that 500,000 jobs had been lost as a result of membership since Britain joined the Community on 1st January 1973.[1] This interpretation of the unemployment statistics strips away any sense of context, completely ignoring important factors such as the global impact of the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. Benn’s claim was thoroughly debunked by Roy Jenkins – as can be seen during this head-to-head debate hosted by a young David Dimbleby – as well as the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Despite this resounding criticism, Benn continued to repeat his claim during the referendum campaign. Labour’s Chief Whip, Robert Mellish, accused Benn of propagating ‘downright lies’, while Chancellor Denis Healey described him as ‘escaping into a cocoon of myth and fantasy’.[2] Obvious parallels can be drawn to the way in which Boris Johnson refused to concede that Britain does not, in fact, send £350 million to the EU each week.

To what extent, then, can Tony Benn be said to have been guilty of propagating ‘fake news’ during the 1975 referendum? It seems clear from the remarks of his ministerial colleagues that such a description may well be apt. However, it is perhaps rather anachronistic to apply this term – a product social media and Kremlin-sponsored propaganda – to the 1970s. Benn’s misleading interpretation of official statistics pales in comparison to the unquestionable falsehoods of ‘fake news’ in the age of Donald Trump.

[1] ‘Benn reasserts claim over unemployment figures’, The Guardian, 21 May 1975, p.24.

[2] R. Lewis, Tony Benn: A Critical Biography (London: Associated Business Press, 1978), p.159.

Leave a Reply