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“This is bigger than just Brexit”: how Gina Miller held the government to account over the EU

She learned Article 50 off by heart and faced off against Nigel Farage on The Andrew Marr Show. But Miller says it's not just about Europe.

The high court ruling on Article 50 has thrown the government’s Brexit plans, such as they were, into disarray. The judgment in effect blocks the Prime Minister from acting without a parliamentary vote. It is a decision that has elicited howls of betrayal from Brexiteers, sparked calls for “peaceful” riots in the streets and led to three of the nation’s top judges being vilified as “enemies of the people” in the press. At the centre of all this is Gina Miller – the lead claimant in the case.

With Labour struggling to articulate its position, it has fallen to this former model-turned-financier and philanthropist to hold the government to account. Miller, who was born in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana), has been hailed by some as a hero and reviled by others as an agent of the moneyed “elites”.

“I’m doing [Labour’s] job . . . It’s disgraceful,” she says. A lifelong Labour voter, she recently withdrew her support in response to what she saw as the party’s rising anti-Semitism.

I meet Miller, who is 51, at Home House, a private members’ club in central London. It is early but the high-ceilinged drawing room is already full of suited types eating breakfast and tapping at laptops. Miller sits in the corner, her petite frame spread across a velvet sofa. She is smaller and more striking in person than in photographs, elegantly attired in a black-and-white trouser suit with a poppy on her lapel. For someone who has become the target of racist and sexist abuse, she is surprisingly relaxed. Her husband and business partner, Alan, a multimillionaire who set up one of the UK’s first hedge funds in 1997, hovers nearby. “I’m the bodyguard,” he says half-jokingly.

Miller’s “steely fearlessness” became clear to the public when last Sunday she faced off against Nigel Farage on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1. “I was shaking,” she says. She calmly asked the Ukip leader if he had read her case and forced him to concede that the referendum result was indeed only advisory.

The backlash against her has since taken a darker turn. She consulted the police after a Facebook campaign called for her to be shot and put in a rubbish bin. There have been threats of an acid attack, and racial abuse. “The racism is extraordinary,” she tells me. “People say things like, ‘She is black and therefore a primate, so we should hunt her down.’”

On the night of the EU referendum, Miller was at home with her husband and their two children in Chelsea, central London. As her family slept, she sat up watching television. The result was a shock to her. “I felt like I was in a dream . . . The only thing I can compare it to is a similar feeling I had when I heard that Princess Diana had died.”

She felt compelled to act after her 11-year-old son woke up the next morning and burst into tears on hearing that Britain had voted to leave the EU.

If Miller is tough, it is because she has had to be. Born into a prominent political family in Guyana, she was sent overseas when she was ten to attend Roedean, the boarding school in Brighton. She was bullied; in their teens, she and her brother lived alone in a flat in Eastbourne. Miller had to take odd jobs to survive; she was a chambermaid for a while.

After school, she studied law at the University of East London but dropped out before her final exams. She married her first husband at 21 (Alan is her third) and became pregnant with her first child. Her daughter suffered brain damage at birth and, by the age of 23, Miller was living in an east London flat, the single mother of a disabled child.

She worked as a waitress at Pizza Express and handed out flyers outside a mobile-phone shop in the cold for extra cash. “My values and principles are the same now as they were then,” she says, angry at the idea that if you are successful, you automatically become one of the elite.

Politics is in her blood. Miller’s father, Doodnauth Singh, was involved in opposition politics when Guyana was under the dictatorship of its strongman leader Forbes Burnham in the 1970s and 1980s. He later became the country’s attorney general and died in 2013. Being in the courtroom during the Brexit case brought back memories of him. Miller quotes a line from John Mortimer’s play A Voyage Round My Father: “My father sent words into the courtroom, as if they were soldiers into battle.”

Miller still feels the loss of her father and has inherited his legal acuity. She studied the wording of Article 50 while touring the UK during the referendum campaign to speak in support of the EU.

“I knew those 250 words inside out,” she says. She was most concerned about the constitutional precedent it would set if Theresa May made decisions about Britain’s future behind closed doors. “This is bigger than just Brexit,” Miller says. “What is so ironic is that this is a case saying we are not a dictatorship, and that is exactly what [May] is doing.”

Alan rushes over with the news that protests are being organised outside their offices in London. “Oh, my goodness,” Gina Miller says, abandoning her breakfast of smoked salmon and avocado. Her composure briefly slips. She is outraged but there is also a momentary hint of vulnerability. Then it’s gone, and her perfect smile is back.

Would she consider a career in politics? “Absolutely not,” she says, laughing, and points out that it is her independence from any party that has given such weight to her campaign. “Can you imagine me as a politician being whipped? I’d last a week.” She might be right, but it would certainly be fun to watch. 

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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