In the rush of digital news that washes over so many of us every day, it’s hard to remember what a politician might have said or promised several weeks ago, let alone several years. Some activists in the United Kingdom have come up with an imaginative, seemingly old-fashioned solution to this modern-day problem.
They plan to put up at least 150 billboards across the U.K. quoting some of the promises and rosy predictions politicians made about Brexit in recent years so people can reconsider them amid the political chaos that has followed.
“There is something about the digital news cycle where all these kind of untruths and lies just fly past you and you forget about them,” says Chris, one of the activists. “We thought if we put them up in the real world, you have to stand there, and look at them and digest them.”
Chris, like the other activists, declined to give his full name, because they had previously illegally commandeered billboards to put up their messages and fear prosecution. Now, though, they’ve gone legit, raising more than $188,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to buy the outdoor ad space and racking up more than 55,000 followers in about a month on Twitter.
The group is called Led By Donkeys. It’s a play on a phrase, “Lions led by donkeys,” that was used to describe British infantrymen led by incompetent generals during World War I.
One of the activists, Richard, says pro-Brexit politicians conned Britons into voting to leave the European Union in the landmark 2016 referendum. He says Brexiteers made extravagant claims about how much money the U.K. would get back from the EU and how easy it would be to not only negotiate the U.K.’s departure, but also to cut a new free trade deal with Brussels. Led By Donkeys wants the billboard campaign to encourage citizens to hold public officials accountable.
“They were promised a utopia where the European Union would crumble before our awesome negotiating power and all the problems of Britain would disappear,” says Richard, “so we feel we’re kind of performing a public information service.”
In the beginning, Led By Donkeys asked Twitter followers to weigh in on which Brexit statements to put up. The billboards are designed to look like giant tweets, though many of the statements were actually spoken in the U.K.’s House of Commons, which is indicated at the bottom of the signs.
One billboard in the English city of Birmingham quotes John Redwood, a member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, tweeting in 2016: “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation.”
Another billboard, in the northeast London district of Walthamstow, quotes former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as saying this in the House of Commons in 2017: “There is no plan for ‘no deal,’ because we’re going to get a great deal.”
Jordan Johnson (no relation to the pro-Brexit politician), who works in business administration with a construction company, rolls up on his skateboard and looks at Boris Johnson’s words on the billboard.
Asked if the U.K.’s deal with the EU is a good one, the 22-year-old says: “It’s not, not at all. The promises have most definitely not come true.”
In fact, Parliament hates the deal the prime minister struck with Brussels so much that last month lawmakers voted it down by a historic margin of 230 votes. With little more than six weeks before Britain’s March 29 exit date, May still doesn’t have a deal British lawmakers will support. The risk of walking away from the EU’s massive market with no agreement continues to grow.
“We were so patriotic, we didn’t think of a backup plan,” says Jordan Johnson. He thinks the Led By Donkeys campaign is “brilliant, because whether you agree with it or don’t agree with it, it will get you to think.”
Others, though, are not impressed, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative member of Parliament. A billboard in London’s West Kensington section quotes Rees-Mogg saying in Parliament in 2011: “We could have two referendums. As it happens, it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed.”
That seems to imply that Rees-Mogg, who has opposed a second Brexit referendum, was once in favor of it. But Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiteer, said in a statement to reporters that the quote is misleading and “highly selective.” He said he was talking at the time about votes on a renegotiated relationship with the EU, not leaving the EU.
David Wood, the worker who put up that Rees-Mogg billboard in London last week, didn’t pay much attention to its content. Like so many in the U.K., he is sick of Brexit. Led By Donkeys and some pro-EU politicians want to see a second Brexit referendum on the grounds that voters were misled during the first one, but Wood is against it.
“We’ve already voted once, we voted to leave, and it was democratically done,” says Wood, wearing orange reflective overalls and working with a ladder, bucket and a giant brush. “Just because they don’t like it, doesn’t mean we should have another one.”