At a time when our Parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying, sometimes appear to be the only upholders of our democratic system. This is the third in a series of articles that will profile some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.
People really do say it – “What, that Gina Miller?!” – when I mention that I will be interviewing one of the best-known campaigners for the upholding of Parliamentary democracy. Yes, that one. The Gina Miller who with wonderful self-deprecation has @thatginamiller as her Twitter handle. The Gina Miller who first hit the headlines when she initiated a court case against Theresa May’s attempt to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament, and in September 2019 successfully challenged Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament. Both cases stirred up a hornet’s nest of abuse and threats from Brexiters, racists, and far-right groups.
Meeting her, even virtually, you are struck by her energy, her determination, and her passion for social justice. Although her name first came to public notice at the time of the EU referendum, she has actually been a remarkably successful campaigner over a couple of decades. She was a driving force behind the introduction of the 1996 Special Education Needs Act, and later worked on the report and the draft of the Modern Slavery Act with the Centre for Social Justice. With her husband Alan Miller she founded the True and Fair Campaign in 2012, focused on outing poor behaviour and promoting transparency in the investment and pension industries. All of which have made her deeply unpopular in certain quarters.
So where does her belief in Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law come from? Reflecting on the question, Miller describes an idyllic childhood in what was then British Guiana, surrounded by a close-knit family, her father the attorney general, and her mother an admirer of all things British and an avid listener to the BBC World Service. “Growing up then in a Commonwealth country”, says Miller, “England was seen as El Dorado, the exemplar of democratic values, of education, of the rule of law.” The family received weekly parcels of books from ‘the home country’, so by a young age she was familiar with the works of Jane Austen, Dickens, and the Brontës. “And that was the Britain that I expected when I was brought over here to boarding school at the age of eleven.” Instead she found a grey country, with people “who didn’t look positive, there was a lot of greyness, I felt that even at that age”.
She describes being left by her parents at Moira House School for Girls, Eastbourne, as “terrible”. “That was the first time that I dealt with a sense of loss.” Rather surprisingly, what gave her hope were the displays of beautiful and colourful flowers along Eastbourne seafront (perhaps a very slight reminder of the colour and vibrancy of life in Guiana). And with hindsight she credits her parents with the right choice of school. “Moira House was non-selective rather than just academically focussed. It was very much about helping you to become a confident young woman, ready to go out into the world and achieve whatever you wanted to.”
Miller’s early life experiences have obviously provided her with a deep belief that individuals can influence ‘the system’, whether financial or Parliamentary, and a responsibility to speak out when they spot wrongdoing. Her mantra for activists, and the themes linking her various campaigns, are passion, experience, and knowledge. “You need to know your stuff, you do need to become the expert quite quickly because if you are speaking from a position of strength and knowledge it’s difficult for people to knock you back.”
I wondered how she manages to keep going in the face of the horrendous abuse and death threats that she has received over the past few years? Miller says candidly that there have been days when she has felt emotionally exhausted, and has been close to giving up. But her enormously supportive family always remind her that if she abandoned her campaigning in a week’s time she would be kicking herself. So she has developed ways to cope – unexpectedly, partly through being a Bruce Lee fan! She tries to channel the negative energy, to tell herself that if she wasn’t being effective they would ignore her, “so there must be something that I’m doing that they feel threatened by.”
Miller is deeply concerned about the direction taken by the current government, citing the Withdrawal Act and the Corona Emergency Powers Act that give the executive wide-ranging powers to act outside the approval of Parliament. She was appalled that attorney general Suella Braverman misrepresented the judgement of the Supreme Court in the 2017 Miller case as justification for the government putting itself above international law. Given recent events Miller believes that opportunities to influence the present government are extremely limited, particularly given their large majority in Parliament. It really is up to MPs to put country first until the next election.
Instead, she says, activists should start working together at a local level to raise awareness of the profound defects in the current system that have been exposed by Brexit and Covid-19, and to push for widespread reform. “We need to start talking about a new constitutional settlement, moving away from a centralised Westminster government, and devolving more issues to local government.” She believes that this may well happen by default as central government will be overwhelmed by the undoing of our EU membership. “You can’t suddenly resolve forty-three years in four years. This and subsequent UK governments will be finding their feet in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world – they will not have the bandwidth to cope with all the issues coming at them.” She is a strong advocate of MPs being held to a contractual set of principles, and ponders if in future they should be limited to holding office for a maximum of two terms.
What about the future? “I haven’t stopped,” says Miller with determination. She is currently pushing for the Online Harms Bill to be brought back to Parliament in the New Year, “as there has to be a duty of care on technology platforms. They are poisonous wells polluting our stream of consciousness.” Her vision of the future is best summed up in her own words, taken from a 2019 Guardian article: “Whatever happens, there have to be new conversations, with a new regard for honesty and compassion; what we are as a country. What are our faults, our strengths, our opportunities, our sense of identity? Our identity tends to be too closely linked to a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses, rather than the truth of who we are now, and how we can be our best in the future”.