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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

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.