It is unlikely that anyone has ever declined the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in so regal a manner as Gina Miller when she addressed them this week at their conference in Brighton. It is, however, possible that had she indicated her willingness to serve, they would have decided to bring forward Jo Swinson, or bring back Nick Clegg.
No such doubts appeared to trouble Miller as she told them:
“Today I speak to you as a friend, someone who feels a bond with you on so many issues. But may I say straightaway, particularly for the journalists in the audience, who might be speculating, I am not addressing you as your leader in waiting. Truth be told, I am not a member of any party…”
There is a majestic, above-the-battle ring to this. Miller emphasised that “I am not political”, and indicated that she had not studied in any great depth the party she was addressing, for as Patrick Kidd noted in The Times, she referred to “that great Liberal leader ‘Lord Joyge'”, and to “Dame Shirley Williams”, whom she may have confused with Dame Shirley Bassey.
Yet Miller is intensely political. She leapt to fame as the anti-Brexit campaigner who won the case in the Supreme Court which obliged the Government to pass an Act of Parliament in order to start the process of leaving the EU.
Then too she declared, having won in the High Court and while calling on the Government not to appeal to the Supreme Court, that the case was “about process, not politics”.
Her decision to bring the case was, of course, intensely political. She wanted to stop Brexit, and she failed to do so, for on February 1st 2017 the Commons voted by the overwhelming margin of 498 to 114 to give effect to the referendum decision. In the short term, the conclusiveness of that vote actually strengthened Brexit.
Miller has not given up the fight to stop Britain leaving the EU, but some on her own side wish she had. For as one Remain campaigner put it:
“She’s an absolute nightmare. She’s impossible to work with and has burned every bridge she’s ever stepped on. She’s held in esteem and affection because of the court case, but she’s one of the most self-obsessed people I’ve ever met. She doesn’t ever think what’s the most collegiate and helpful thing to do in a situation. She has a personal staff of 18, or so she has told various people. Everybody is incredulous. You can launch a coup with 18 people.”
In August this year, when Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewed her for Channel 4 News, he put it to her, “So you don’t really fit British parliamentary democracy,” and Miller agreed: “No I don’t.”
Guru-Murthy went on, “You would have been a presidential candidate had we had a presidential system,” which led Miller to wonder: “Is there something in between representative and direct democracy, something that’s fit for the 21st, 22nd and 23rd centuries?”
She is however, in her way, a populist, who knows her strength lies in reaching out directly to the people, and cannot bear the idea of being constrained by a party, or, as she put it later in her conversation with Guru-Murthy, a club:
“You give up some of your integrity when you belong to a club because you have to play by the rules of the club and you have to speak in their voice and I think that can be quite limiting.”
One sees her arrogant conviction that she is more honest than party politicians, and that she does not need to play by their rules.
But those qualities helped her to bring her court case. In theory anyone had the right to do this, but Miller had the boldness and the money to do it, and the toughness needed to stand up to an extraordinary degree of odium.
To her opponents, she exuded a sense of entitlement, and became a hated symbol of the self-righteous metropolitan elite which was plotting to use its power and money to thwart the wishes of Brexit voters living in unfashionable places far from London. Democracy was being subverted by an arrogant plutocracy.
Much of the abuse hurled at Miller was unconscionable. She received numerous death threats against herself and her three children.
Rhodri Colwyn Philipps, the 4th Viscount St Davids, wrote on Facebook, four days after she had won her case: “£5,000 for the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody troublesome first generation immigrant.”
He also described her as a “boat jumper”, and went on: “If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.” In July 2017 he was found guilty of two charges of making menacing communications, and sentenced to 12 weeks in prison.
It seems to me that many of the attacks on Miller rest on a misunderstanding of what it means to be British, aggravated by the ignoble passions surrounding the EU referendum, during which both sides quite often resorted to character assassination.
On the Leave side, Boris Johnson is the most frequent target for ad hominem attack: I have lost count of the articles by distinguished journalists in which his character is trashed, without a word being devoted to the arguments for and against belonging to the European Union.
Miller has herself revealed a rougher side of her character, almost spitting these words out when talking about Johnson: “how can you have someone who is a repeated liar be it as a journalist or when he was a politician leading our country? Surely we’re better than that.”
Because Miller is not white, and came to this country when she was a child, it is quite often assumed that she is some presumptuous foreigner, who has the gall to come to London and tell us how to run our affairs.
This is to misunderstand her. Miller was born in 1965 in what was still British Guiana. Her beloved father, Doodnath Singh, who died at the age of 80 in 2013 and to whom she bears a touching resemblance, was a barrister who had been called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London in 1958, fought cases in many parts of the West Indies and ended his career as Attorney-General from 2001-09 of Guyana, as British Guiana became. When one knows this, it seem less strange that Miller should set her faith on legal remedies.
At the age of 11, she was sent to boarding school in England. In her interview with Guru-Murthy she recalled: “I was so excited, as with most Commonwealth countries we were coming to the motherland, I grew up with the Queen on the wall.”
Her mother’s most prized possession was a set of Wedgwood china: “We were more British than the British.”
She has described, in a recent article for Vogue, what happened next:
“I left Guyana to attend school in Eastbourne with my elder brother, leaving our parents behind but when the country came under ‘lock-down’, they were unable to send cash to the UK. Luckily, my mother had had the foresight to buy a property near our schools and that is where we lived – I was 13 years old and my brother 15. On the weekends and twice in the week after school I worked in local hotels, either as a chambermaid or clearing up in the restaurant. My brother did two paper rounds and washed up in kitchens. We were aware that it would be illegal to live unsupervised until my brother turned 16, so I did everything to look older. I would leave for school in the morning wearing grown-up clothes and high heels, and then change into my school uniform in a petrol station on the way, then do the same in the evenings. Whilst we missed our parents dreadfully, and it was difficult juggling our home lives with homework and school, it made us who we are today.”
What a traditional turn of phrase: “It made us who we are today.” Here is a British story of initiation through hardship. Moira House, the school in question, now part of the Rhodean group, issued a statement after the Brexit case: “Gina was a student at Moira House from 1976–1983 and is clearly upholding the school motto of ‘Let no-one be a stranger’ and ‘Other people matter’.”
Miller likes to emphasise how often she has failed: “I’ve failed at marriages. I’ve failed with my daughter who has special needs. I’ve failed at businesses. I’ve failed at wanting to become a criminal barrister which was my greatest dream.” She has recently published a book about some of the harrowing experiences which she has survived.
She is now on her third marriage, to Alan Miller, a prosperous hedge fund man, has with him set up Miller Philanthropy, and has continued her career as a City marketeer, launching with her husband a campaign against excessive charges for City products.
She has, indeed, a gift for preposterous publicity, and for proposing herself as a role model: “I’ve worked for everything I’ve got… I do know what it’s like to have nothing.” The other day, she was photographed on the white cliffs of Dover, occupying ground which defenders of national sovereignty might suppose to be their own.
Miller stood alone, yet again setting up her own campaign to enlighten the British people, yet again posing as a more moral figure (“nobody else is providing that straight talking”) than the very people who might be her companions in arms.