Gina Miller, businesswoman and campaigner: Exclusive Interview

By on 09/10/2017
Gina Miller, businesswoman and campaigner (Image courtesy: Derek Goard).

When Gina Miller forced the UK government to consult Parliament before triggering the process of leaving the EU, she became a hate figure for hardline Brexiteers. Global Government Forum’s Matt Ross learns what drove her campaign to put Parliament in the driving seat, and discovers that she isn’t done yet

When Gina Nadira Singh was little, people often came to her home in newly-independent Guyana to talk politics with her parents. “Being a typically naughty girl, I wouldn’t go to bed; I’d lie at the top of the stairs and listen to them,” she recalls. “They were so passionate and concerned. Even as a child, I instinctively knew they were good people; they really cared about what they were doing. And that passion was quite infectious.”

Politics really mattered in the Singh household: as a barrister and democracy campaigner, her father Doodnauth was involved in both prosecuting coup plotters around the Caribbean, and defending political activists against charges brought by Guyana’s own repressive government. Later, following Guyana’s first free elections in 1992, Doodnauth was to become the country’s attorney general and the chair of its electoral commission.

“Politics was a living, breathing thing in our home,” says his daughter – who became Gina Miller on her marriage in 2005. “My family always talked about social justice, responsibility; about values and principles.” Having grown up under an autocratic regime, “we knew that you can never take anything for granted; that you always have to speak up and be active. That authority isn’t the truth; it’s actually truth that’s the authority. That’s what underpins the way I was brought up, and the way I have to live my life.”

It’s not hard to spot in that little girl the characteristics that, 40 years on, would lead Gina Miller to become Brexiteers’ biggest hate figure in Britain’s divided political landscape.

Broken promises

When Miller was sent to a small private girls’ school in England (not ultra-posh Roedean, she adds: “That’s been made up by the press”), she brought with her a romantic idea of the UK common to many Commonwealth immigrants. “At home, we had the Queen on the wall; we were more British than the British,” she recalls. So the realities of 1970s England were a shock: in an environment of economic decline and industrial action, Miller looked in vain for the high-minded principles of democracy, law and education she’d associated with the “promised land”.

“I found it quite odd that people didn’t talk about politics,” she says. “I was very conscious that I wanted to preserve the things I saw that were great in Britain; I was going to live up to my vision of Britain.”

This, of course, meant getting past the inevitable discrimination directed at a young, female Asian immigrant; and here, she’s immensely pragmatic. “Whenever I’ve encountered prejudice, I’ll go the extra mile to talk to that person and get them to understand me; if I get angry, I’m just going to confirm their views,” she says. “I’m very realistic: I always accepted that I’d have to work harder. The only way you’re going to change things is to walk the path yourself, and show that things can be different.”

Photo: Derek Goard

A rocky road

That path proved a tough one; by her mid-20s, Miller had dropped out of a law degree before sitting her finals, and become a single mum with a disabled child. But in the 1990s she built a successful career in financial services marketing and start-up investments, ultimately launching wealth management firm SCM Direct with her husband Alan Miller in 2009.

Success, however, didn’t blunt Miller’s commitment to speaking up. Alongside SCM, the couple launched the ‘True and Fair Campaign’ to campaign for transparency in financial services fees. “You can’t have a competitive market if you don’t know the price,” she comments. And their True and Fair Foundation campaigning group has published two controversial reports criticising charities for spending too little of their income on frontline work.

Miller’s campaigns made powerful enemies in both the City and the voluntary sector; her motive, she says, was to shine a spotlight on the way that vested interests manipulate market sectors in their own interest. “I think we need to have scrutiny; we need to deliver a better outcome in all the sectors I’ve challenged,” she says. And so to Brexit.

Protecting parliamentary powers

Miller was saddened by the result of the EU referendum in June 2016 – but what really outraged her was the government’s plan to enact Article 50, triggering the formal process of leaving the EU, without a parliamentary vote.

Joining the EU had required an Act of Parliament, and Brexit campaigners had long built their arguments around repatriating EU powers to the Palace of Westminster. But now the government wanted to use the executive powers of Royal prerogative to leave the EU without a vote among MPs: “Bypassing Parliament would have completely decayed the very thing we were all talking about: parliamentary sovereignty,” Miller argues. What’s more, Article 50 can only be enacted according to a nation’s “constitutional requirements”; if they were sidestepped, she feared, the whole process could collapse.

Above all, Miller – deeply disappointed by the quality of debate during the referendum campaign – hoped that taking Article 50 to Parliament would catalyse an open, honest discussion about the substantive issues. “I was hoping there would be a proper debate; that we’d have the debate we hadn’t had,” she recalls. “It was about putting MPs back where they should be.”

Things get ugly

So Miller, acting with a couple of fellow campaigners, launched a legal bid to force the government to hold a parliamentary vote before enacting Article 50. Why, in her view, did prime minister Theresa May choose to fight the case? Leave campaigners were “in panic mode,” she replies: they feared that “the majority of politicians on both sides, who were at heart Remainers and understood the perils we were about to face,” would take the opportunity to block Brexit. Certainly, a clear majority of MPs – including almost all of the Cabinet – had campaigned for Remain.

Furious at what they saw as an attempt to use the legal system to derail the referendum result, the right-wing press and their political allies attacked Miller and her co-litigants relentlessly – and murkier elements joined in wholeheartedly on social media, mounting a hate campaign that mixed racism, sexism and death threats.

“Everything was being thrown at me,” says Miller. “In British law, you need a litigant to bring a case; and if I was broken, there would be no case. So every part of my life was ransacked. They wanted to create an environment of fear, so that not just the politicians but everybody else – businesses, academics – would be too scared” to oppose Brexit.

The threats of violence and murder shocked Miller. She had to hire security guards and move offices, whilst an aristocrat was jailed for apparently offering a reward for her killing. With hindsight, she’d underestimated the extent to which her case would be viewed as a political act: “We made the case all about the black and white letter of the law. I thought they’d understand the legal principle we were trying to defend,” she says.

She was also disappointed that so few rallied behind her defence of parliamentary sovereignty. “I put my head above the parapet, thinking that other people would join me,” she says. “I didn’t envisage that at the end of the process I would still be standing alone.” But people were too scared: the press and social media campaign, ugly though it was, had done its job.

Photo: Derek Goard

A hollow victory

When Miller won her High Court case and defeated the government’s Supreme Court appeal, the right-wing press was furious: the Daily Mail ran a photo of the appeal court judges beneath the banner headline ‘Enemies of the People’. This too shocked her: “We need to defend the independence of our judiciary, which takes on an even more important role at times of populist politics,” she says. Nonetheless, she had secured the parliamentary debate; now, surely, the House of Commons would rise to the occasion.

But no – for Miller, though astute in the fields of law, finance and business, hadn’t understood how powerfully the direct democracy of the referendum had usurped the representative democracy of the UK’s elected MPs. Recognising that to oppose Brexit would split the party, Tory MPs lined up behind their Brexit-converted, newly-elevated leader Theresa May. And Eurosceptic Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, rattled by the defection of working class supporters to the Leave campaign, pushed his Remain-supporting MPs through the government’s lobby.

“The debate didn’t happen,” says Miller ruefully. “In any normal decision-making process, you’d look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats; you’d take a prismatic approach to a problem, and develop a solution. But up to today, we haven’t had that debate.”

Indeed, Brexit is so huge and so political an issue that it is both impossible to ignore, and impossible to discuss: it will affect the work of most senior professionals across the UK, but those pointing to the difficulties it presents are regularly labelled ‘Remoaners’ and accused of talking down the country. This is particularly awkward for the civil servants charged with running EU negotiations and delivering Brexit policies, notes Miller: “Their political masters don’t like the answers that civil servants are coming up with,” she says. “Their ears are closed at the moment. There’s a real unwillingness to listen to the reality of where we are.”

The mother of all SNAFUs

The UK finds itself in this position, Miller believes, because neither the Remain nor the Leave campaigners expected a referendum vote for Brexit. “There was an ideological debate going on all the time, so there was no plan A, B or C; there was no understanding of what a Leave vote would mean,” she says. Indeed, the government had done no planning, for fear of giving heart to Leave campaigners; to this day, even its impact assessments remain unpublished.

The population, assured by Brexiteers that the EU will concede Britain’s goals in exit and trade talks, has been conditioned to expect a deal without compromises or costs; and any politician wishing to meet the EU halfway is accused of betraying the will of the people. So the government, whose legitimacy rests on its elected representatives, cannot fulfil its responsibility to broker a pragmatic agreement with its EU counterparts. Its authority has been sucked away by the direct mandate of the referendum vote; and the triumphant Brexiteers, in defining the meaning of that vote, have marked out red lines that ignore the EU’s own stated goals and interests.

Tactical errors made in the wake of the poll make a deal still more elusive. Beginning the two-year Article 50 exit process, says Miller, created a deadline that favours EU negotiators – for no EU nation would suffer as badly as the UK if we run out of time before agreeing a deal. “The minute we triggered Article 50, we gave away all our power,” she says. “It sits on the other side of the table now.”

Looking ahead, Miller is uncharacteristically gloomy. She’s no fan of a second referendum – “It created so much division within families, communities, workplaces” – and says the EU won’t give the UK a status that’s more advantageous than full membership. The European Free Trade Association “don’t want us as members, because we upset everything for them,” and membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) alone “is not a great place for us to be”.

“It’s probably the EEA, or no deal, or remaining,” she concludes, suggesting that only another general election could reverse the referendum decision. “Everyone was talking about the last election being the Brexit election,” she comments. “Actually, I think that will be the next one.”

 

Miller v Secretary of State for DExEU rides again

During that last election, worried that a Tory landslide would rob Parliament of influence in the Brexit talks, Miller funded a campaign to promote tactical voting against May’s Conservatives. In the event, May lost her majority – stymied both by her own disastrous campaign, and by Corbyn’s discovery of reserves of energy and enthusiasm notably absent during his insipid Remain referendum campaign. But now a minority Tory administration – propped up by a handful of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs from Northern Ireland’s Protestant community – is pushing through legislation that, Miller says, presents another threat to the power of Parliament.

For over 40 years, EU rules have been making their way into the UK statute book. As Britain leaves the union, it needs ways both to give those laws continued force as their legislative underpinning is stripped away; and to adapt them to our new circumstances – changing, for example, references to regulators and appeal courts. However, time is short, and as yet we have no idea what those new circumstances will be. So the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill passes vast new law-writing powers to ministers, enabling them to redraft swathes of legislation over a two-year period.

This horrifies Miller, who points out that ministers could – for example – use these ‘Henry VIII’ powers to axe workers’ rights, equality rules or environmental standards without specific approval from Parliament. Her Article 50 victory “confirmed that Parliament is sovereign and only Parliament can take away or diminish people’s rights,” she adds – but that’s of little help if Parliament voluntarily gives away its powers. Only if the government tries to use Henry VIII powers after the two years has elapsed will Miller’s Supreme Court victory regain its leverage: “And if they tried to use it then, we would go back to court,” she says.

Photo: Derek Goard

Of unionists and disunion

Meanwhile, Miller has spotted another missing debate – and found a way to make it happen. In return for the DUP’s support on key votes, the Tories promised them £1bn (US$1.3bn). But a legal probe, mounted by Miller and a minor trade union, recently forced the government to admit that Parliament will have to vote through the money – surprising many including, apparently, the DUP themselves.

Once again, Miller finds herself forcing the country’s key debating chamber to debate a key issue. And once again, the outcome is a foregone conclusion: terrified of catalysing a general election that could well be won by Labour, even the most Remain-sympathetic Tory MPs will vote through the cash. What’s the point of a debate that won’t change anything? “It doesn’t matter if the outcome ends up being exactly the same; the way you get there is really important,” she replies. “And the fact that they were lying about it makes my blood boil. These are the people in power, and the example they’re setting is that it’s okay to lie and cheat to get your own way.”

At the end of the day, Miller is using legal tools to catalyse political debates; and unless the political calculations change, those debates will always fall short of her expectations. The public servants, lawyers and businesspeople who’ll have to manage the consequences of Brexit would overwhelmingly prefer to remain in the EU, as would almost all Opposition MPs; and many Tory MPs would revert to Remain if the political winds changed. But as long as the tabloid press and Tory Brexiteers – wrapped in the flag of the referendum result, and given political space by an ambiguous Labour position – lead the charge towards Brexit, the UK seems unable to change course.

Hardened hearts displace flexible minds

Miller isn’t a natural joiner; an independent mind wary of the compromises demanded by party membership, she has no desire to move fully into the political fray. That, she says, leaves her dependent on legal tools to help shape the public debate: “If we were in a place where academics, experts and others could have a reasoned debate, we wouldn’t have to resort to the law – but we don’t have that,” she says. “Something’s happened that means that debate is a dirty word; that being expert or having experience is seen as negative. The Opposition are going to a 1950s idea of left-wing politics, so we’ve got extremism on both sides. And if we can’t have a reasonable debate in public, in the media, then the only place you can have it is through the legal system.”

A “pragmatic Remainer”, Miller says she accepts the referendum result – but she believes the government’s ideological, unrealistic approach threatens to turn that result into a terrible outcome. “How are we going to get a good deal if we have politicians who aren’t reading the detail, following the process and doing things legally? That actually weakens our position,” she says. “The rest of the world is thinking that these intelligent, thoughtful, fair-minded, tolerant people can’t even get their own politicians to toe the line, and that’s creating a complete shambles.”

Contemporary Britain, she says, was built by “generations of men and women who’ve used their hearts and minds to get to where we are, and now we have the opposite: a hardening of the heart, and a lack of use of the mind.” So here, again, we hear the voice of Gina Nadira Singh: the Commonwealth immigrant who came here full of admiration for the UK’s traditions of discourse and democracy.

“My sense of Britain that I want to preserve, and what I’m fighting for, is what I think makes Britain great,” she says. She is aware of the irony: many Leave voters “want to go back to a sense of Britain from the past,” she adds. “In a different way, we’re probably fighting for the same things.”

The UK has changed enormously over the years since little Gina Singh learned about British tolerance and pragmatism. But today’s successful businesswoman still believes that those values lie deep in the British psyche; that they can be unlocked to rescue a sensible outcome from our current chaos. And so, listening from the landing, she has done her utmost to get the people downstairs to have an honest, principled, realistic debate about where we’re going, and what to do next. But all she can hear is angry shouting.

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts on Women Leaders

Gina Miller on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees a set of standard questions. Given Gina Miller’s career and expertise, in this case we have asked her about the issues around gender equality and women leaders, rather than the operation of government. This is an edited version of her replies – click below to watch her full answers in a Global Government Forum video.

https://youtu.be/6Jbk0D1s14Y

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about how to succeed as a woman in a leadership role?

“Two lessons, probably. One is that you have to confront the reality that you need to do more work than your male colleagues. And second, you need to listen. Rather than speaking first, I’ve learnt the thing to do is to let others speak, to listen, and then to be almost the sounding board for their thoughts.

“There’s an awful lot of women who think what they need to do is get the word in first. And actually it’s much easier, I’ve found. if you listen and then respond.”

Have you seen any initiatives or policies outside the UK that might help support gender equality in senior positions in this country?

“Absolutely, and not just in senior positions but all the way through women in work. The infrastructure around childcare is so missing in the UK. We really don’t have that in any way that’s meaningfully supportive to women.

“The second thing – and I’ve seen this especially in Nordic countries – is this idea that you don’t have to be seen to be at your place of work. So for example, someone will come and say: ‘I’m leaving at four o’clock to collect the children,’ and nobody says anything because they know they’ll finish the job later on. So it’s the idea that you can deliver without physically being present at a desk.”

And is there anything in the UK that other countries might find useful in supporting gender equality?

“I have to say that I think we are quite a way behind, especially in my world: in the City the number of women is still far, far too low. I think we have a lot to learn.

“What I do think we’re coming to terms with and talking about more in the UK is unconscious bias. We need to have that conversation around the world, [discussing] not just what’s happening on the outside but also what’s happening on the inside, and how that’s projected and creates discrimination.”

Finally, what’s your favourite book?

“At the moment, I love a book called ‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout. I’m a great John Steinbeck fan as well: that whole way of being able to describe interacting with your surroundings and relationships, and of creating truths out of that storytelling, I find really interesting. It’s a fantastic book.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

One Comment

  1. Annie Featherstone

    12/10/2017 at

    I don’t believe Ms Miller has a clue about the motivations of the British population. She is a typical remainer, wealthy, insulated and unaffected by the normal ebb and flow of politics.
    The leave vote was to wrest control away from politicians and in particular from unelected politicians we can’t even throw out (the commissioners et al). No one cast their vote on the basis of a number on the side of a bus. And no one voted leave while still hoping for membership of the single market and the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ.
    Ms Miller feels disorientated and dislocated. Her class, among whom she felt safe, have been subverted. She must feel like someone in a penthouse suite during an earthquake.
    Too bad. Revolutions happen. She should be thankful it was a peaceful one. If she were to succeed in her efforts the peaceful option would no longer be there.

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