Have you ever wanted to be a celebrity? Be honest, I’m sure you have thought about it. I’ll admit a small part of me feels a self-indulgent attraction to having my own Wikipedia article, or being the author of a hilarious new meme, but if you need reminding that fame is a poisoned chalice then speak to Gina Miller. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has borne so much media abuse after she instigated the notorious legal challenge to the government over its authority to begin the Brexit process without parliamentary approval. That was in June 2016. Since then the High Court of Justice and the Supreme Court have ruled in her favour and the activation of Article 50 was passed in Parliament with barely a whimper of opposition.
Since June 2016 Miller has also become somewhat of a project for the media’s character assassins, famous almost as much for being hated as she is for the court case which thrust her to national attention in the first place. So reviled is she, not just by the press but by much of the public-at-large, that her visit to LMH had to be organised in secret, under strict orders from her security that it was not to be publicly advertised. When she arrived at the rustic setting of Norham Gardens, the rumour of her visit had spread effectively by word of mouth and she was greeted with a packed out room.
Over the course of an hour in conversation with LMH’s principal and former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, she covered the personal motivations behind her decision to throw herself into the EU debate, the trials and torments of being a public political figure and the inside story of one of the most infamous courts cases in modern British legal history. Before diving into these weighty topics, however, she began with her origin story in post-independence Guyana.
Miller has… become… a project for the media’s character assassins, famous almost as much for being hated as she is for the court case which thrust her to national attention...
Gina Miller could not help but be politicised at a young age. Her father helped launch an opposition party and she vividly recalled sitting at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping on debates about social justice. She first arrived in the UK to escape the political instability of her homeland and attended a ‘dysfunctional’ girls’ school in Eastbourne, Sussex.
Before Miller got into politics, she was a businesswoman. In fact, she remains an investment fund manager. Astonishingly, everything from the court case to the ‘Best for Britain’ tactical voting campaign which she founded has been done in her spare time. It explains a lot that she is one of those rare human beings who can survive on around four hours of sleep.
She alighted on business as a career move after a short-lived flirtation with law but money, she was eager to stress, was never a primary incentive. Miller identifies as a ‘conscious capitalist’ and was appalled that was nobody was taken to task after the 2008 Financial Crisis. In 2009 she set up the True and Fair Foundation to promote among the monied elite the philosophy of giving back to the community which provided for their success.
It was this philosophy of public service, she claims, which first her led to get involved in the Remain campaign. Unfortunately for her, as Miller admits with a wry smile, she has a habit of falling out with everyone, including her own side as she refused to swallow the official slogans and messages which were circulated from headquarters to Remain campaigners across the country. Outspoken individualism was a recurring theme in her talk.
Many journalists are more interested in constructing personalities for the public to dislike than in reporting on debate. Fact-checking, she opines, is passé.
When the legal case against the government was first issued, the backlash was violent and immediate. Protests were held by Brexit supporters outside the officers of her acting law firm Mishcon de Reya, and its Jewish employees were subject to anti-Semitic abuse. Perhaps the biggest shock of all for her was the depths the press were willing to plumb to smear her image. One publication even dispatched a journalist to her father’s village in the hope of uncovering some dirt and scandal on her family.
It might be tempting to think that public scrutiny goes with the territory of national politics but the burden of media attention is difficult for most to comprehend. The hardest part of it all, Miller explains, is walking down the street and not feeling safe. She has had to wipe her name from public records like the DVLA. Buses and trains are no-go areas for her now. She relates one story of having a meal with her husband in a restaurant when she noticed that a stranger on an adjacent table was discretely recording their conversation. ‘Unnerving’ doesn’t really cover it.
Then there are the letter of abuse. The Referendum clearly touched a nerve in the British public consciousness, eliciting an unprecedented emotional response from both sides such that outright bullying now seems to have a social license if it’s in the name of either Remain or Leave. I have witnessed this myself with respect to the online treatment of the few Leavers who occupy my Facebook feed. Likewise, Gina Miller told of two of her abusers who had been issued cease a desist letters and are now suing the police for harassment.
Whilst her main grievances lie with the press, Miller doesn’t esteem the broadcast media much higher as the pursuit of ratings landed her in some sticky situations. On one occasion she was forced into a sofa debate with Nigel Farage on the Andrew Marr Show after the BBC preemptively tweeted about the showdown before even asking her permission. Another time she received the full Andrew Neil treatment when she was accused of being a rich woman looking for a hobby.
‘There’s nothing I have done which can possibly stop Brexit’, she shoots back. By confirming that the Brexit process conforms to our own law, ‘I actually made sure that Brexit was done legally’…
Miller’s main thesis about the modern media is that many journalists are more interested in constructing personalities for the public to dislike than in reporting on debate. Fact-checking, she opines, is passé. Apparently, very few of the journalists she encountered actually read the case before court. Anyone interested in free and fair discussion on either side of the EU Referendum ought to recognise that she has a point when she says that it’s difficult for reasoned to discussion to penetrate the smokescreen of provocative headlines chastising the instruments of our judicial system as enemies of the people.
When the talk finished I managed to snatch a few moments with her. I wanted to know more about how she feels the media distort the public narrative. Meekly channeling my inner Jeremy Paxman, I ask her how she would respond to the accusation that she holds popular sovereignty in contempt. She quickly puts me in my place. ‘There’s nothing I have done which can possibly stop Brexit’, she shoots back. By confirming that the Brexit process conforms to our own law, ‘I actually made sure that Brexit was done legally’, throwing out the possibility of the EU rejecting our bid to exit on constitutional grounds. Furthermore, she emphasises that she has never called for the Referendum result to be rejected and dismisses the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for a second referendum. ‘It’s a complete waste of energy and it would be disrespectful to the people’. This was news to me. I too had bought into the line that she harboured ambitions to reverse the Referendum’s result. ‘People choose to say that about me because it is easy to say but they have never bothered to actually come and talk to me’.
I was still curious as to whether it was all worth it. After all, the legal case was hugely expensive and in the end the triggering of Article 50 was approved by Parliament without any noteworthy resistance. ‘It preserved our constitution… It ensured that any prime minister has to go through parliament if they want to take away people’s rights’.
But was it worth it on a personal level? How has she coped with the transition to national fame? ‘Half the time I have no idea who people are talking about because it’s not me’. She returns to the idea that the media are responsible for constructing hate figures. She then switches gear and admits: ‘I’m a bit of a fatalist, I think things happen for a reason… I can cope with things and I also seem to be a good communicator. These two things mean that I can go out there and do some good with the position I find myself in’.
Meeting the ogre of the press in the flesh was a surreal experience. She came across as remarkably self-assured, as one might expect, but a foaming at the mouth Remoaner she was not. Instead, what was really striking was her deep-seated, almost nerdy passion for constitutional law. The press didn’t come out well from our conversation but that is unsurprising considering her experience. Quite why celebrity seems to be a life goal in itself for so many these days is beyond me.