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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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”