It’s about saving Britain, it’s not about Brexit: Gina Miller

A second referendum is not a good idea, says the campaigner who took the British government to the Supreme Court over Brexit

February 07, 2018 12:15 am | Updated December 03, 2021 05:01 pm IST

Gina Miller.

Gina Miller.

Gina Miller, née Gina Singh, was thrust into the spotlight in 2016 after a London court appointed her as the lead claimant in a case that attempted to ensure that the British government sought parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50, Britain’s formal notification of withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Born in Guyana, with part Indian ancestry, and the daughter of that country’s former attorney general, Ms. Miller pursued a number of campaigns before the one on Brexit, including one to increase greater transparency in the British financial services industry. The backlash she faced from sections of the right in Britain after the court accepted her arguments on the need for parliamentary approval have not prevented her from continuing to be a vocal progressive voice on Brexit-related issues, sexual harassment, and the £1 billion deal struck between the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and the Conservatives. In this interview in London, she speaks about the principles that drive her work, Brexit, and why she is a fan of the colour purple. Excerpts:

You’ve campaigned on a wide range of issues — transparency in the fund management industry, Brexit, and the implementation of the EU’s new regulatory reforms for financial institutions. What is it that binds these campaigns?

I’ve been a campaigner for over 20 years. Starting from small local campaigns and building up to big international ones, it’s always been: you need to shine a light in dark corners because that exposes a lot of the dubious behaviour that goes on. Secondly, I think there has to be accountability and scrutiny or else we get corruption. Thirdly, you have to always ensure that every industry has a societal responsibility.

What was it that led you down this route?

I grew up in a very political household. My father was an attorney general, and I grew up with a strong sense of justice. Because of that I knew a lot of things that went wrong as well. And I saw the human cost of that, which tended to be women and children. I realised that as a woman I could play quite a different role to the men who were fighting for the same principles I believe in.

What do you think you can do that is different?

I think I can come at it from a different perspective. We may end up at the same conclusion, but my thought process and how I evaluate things are far more holistic. I am not so headstrong going down one particular path; I explore lots of paths and look at things more collaboratively. I also don’t need to be at the front of things. I can be in the background, connect people, make things happen and create solutions. If you are able to do that — create the right environment for ideas to flourish and pass them on to other people — you can do a lot more.

When you joined the Brexit case, were you aware of what you’d be in for?

In this case, something that people don’t appreciate is that I didn’t make myself the lead claimant; it was the courts that appointed me. I was never supposed to be in this position. Someone from the right-wing press later told me: ‘Gina, the courts gave us the best person they could have, you were an avatar of hate. A woman, coloured, articulate — it was exactly what we needed. A gift.’

How did you deal with it? If you went back in time, would you do it again?

In my previous campaigns, I had seen my share of hostility. But when people pick on you — the way you look and sound, the horrendous threats of violence and gang rape, threats to slit your kids’ throats in front of you, they sent reporters to try and find skeletons in my family — I wondered, how do I fight this? And then I realised I had to be me. I had to be completely honest and not let them get to me. Because if you act with grace and intelligence and you believe what you are doing, people can’t touch you. If you don’t give them permission to destroy you, they can’t actually do it.

And something different happened around the Supreme Court hearing: more people started writing to me. On the wall I have a letter from a little girl who drew me a ‘Go, Gina’ superhero badge. I realised I could give people hope and it gave me the strength to carry on. Yes, there are always fewer voices — for every hundred horrible things, I get four or five positives — but they are definitely worth it.

Knowing everything I do now, I would have done exactly the same thing, but I would have knocked [on the doors of] a few corporates and others to fund me earlier. I thought they’d join in once they’d seen how well we were doing but they were all frightened and they all put their hands in their pockets. The burden of funding has been enormous as has been the cost of security. I would have also explained things to my children sooner. Children are far more resilient than we think. But when it came to taking action, knowing all that I do now... absolutely, I would do it all again.

Parliament has given the go-ahead and much got through Parliament. Are you happy with the direction of things now?

It’s an absolute indication of where we are politically: we have a bullying culture in both the main political parties, and good MPs with integrity are continually threatened with losing their seats or being deselected. It’s not the structure that is broken; it’s the people in charge and that’s why nothing is going to change. Which is why as much as I fought for parliamentary sovereignty, I think it’s dysfunctional. It needs to be the people who have the voice. And I think at the end of this process there needs to be a people’s vote on all the options [for Brexit] and not just a parliamentary vote because I don’t think they’ll [Parliament] vote for the best interests of the country.

Should Britain have a second referendum?

I don’t think so, but [it should have] a people’s vote on all the options: whatever deal we get, no deal and remaining. But we can’t turn the clock back so [the campaign to remain] would have to be remain with a reform agenda. The question is, how do we get to a better place and how do we mend this country? We are now living in a very divided, hostile country. Even if I had a magic wand tomorrow and we could withdraw Article 50, it’s not going to heal this country. We have to think about the bigger picture: the future of Britain is more than Brexit and there are lots of people fighting for ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ who are stuck in the past and don’t realise what the true agenda is now. It’s about saving this country, it’s not about Brexit.

How do you go about that?

We have to change the language we use and try and move people beyond ‘remain’ and ‘leave’. There are too many irresponsible people in power who are using Brexit as a power play. It has to come from people with integrity in all walks of life, not just politicians. You could argue that part of the reason for Brexit was that people were irresponsible. We lived in our comfortable bubbles and forgot about others. We didn’t understand what the impact was on different parts of society. We need to step out of our comfort zones and take some responsibility.

Can this happen? Are you an optimist?

I think what is happening is not defined by nationhood; it’s about people as human beings. The major issues facing us have no national boundaries. The gap between the have and the have-nots is growing ever deeper. All round the world you have companies that have no global home and don’t pay taxes, terrorism knows no boundaries, [there is] lack of water and electricity. We have to fight them together; it’s not about individual countries. If people in positions of power and responsibility can come together to think [about] how they can affect change, we can start changing hearts and minds.

What about forums such as Davos?

I think Davos is part of the problem. It’s an outdated and opaque place for rich men to hide, rich businesses to make secret deals behind back doors. I would scrap Davos tomorrow.

What are your next steps?

To me there is the immediate ‘going to war’ almost — the immediate problem and the longer-term conversation to be had once the short term has been dealt with. We will survive [Brexit], we will have the downturn, and no one will take the blame, but after that I think the conversations I’m starting to have already is about thinking about politics in a different way. You can’t deal with violence, education, poverty, inequality without joined up thinking and on 3/5-year policy cycles. You need ones that are cross-party and have long-term strategies in place.

I’m a great lover of the colour purple. I speak at lots of schools and say to the kids: ‘If we could mix the colours of all the [British political] parties, you’d get purple.’ I’m a great advocate of purple politics which puts the country and the people before money and politics.

Will Brexit happen?

It’s very complicated. I don’t believe politicians or Brexiteers have any grasp of the legal, domestic or international aspects of this, and they will end up being tied up in legislation for years to come. There is also a significant misunderstanding about Brexit: they have an idea that you can stop the relationship and move on, but it’s not moving on. It’s reversing 44 years of integration. They also talk about lowering regulations, but the rest of the world is converging on regulation and they are going down a route the rest of the world isn’t.

How do you pick your battles?

I tend to pick battles that I can win. I am also always looking at unintended consequences. For every action you can have a ripple effect which is not necessarily the one you want. Things are never black or white and if there is a danger, the unintended consequence could hurt people and be more damaging than the win. I won’t pursue them.

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