Christopher Jackson finds the prolific campaigner’s energy undimmed
‘You’ve introduced me to somewhere I didn’t know,’ says Gina Miller brightly as she walks into the private members’ club at Ten Trinity Square. Immediately, she’s interested in the hotel’s previous incarnation, as home of the Port of London Authority. It also hosted the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Miller’s love of history will permeate our conversation: she has been living that up close ever since her challenge to the government in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, which was decided in January 2017. Fame followed. As we sit down to lunch she gestures at her phone, full of invitations to appear on television: ‘You’re my shield today,’ she laughs.
She doesn’t regret her absence from the TV circuit (‘there’s little space for a proper debate’); instead she orders champagne. Then this contemporary figure proceeds to discuss the past. Her favourite politician turns out to be Gladstone. He injected a sense of moral purpose into a materialistic age; Miller has done the same for ours. ‘Gladstone came to the fore at the time of the Great Reform Act. There was this idea that you didn’t want people to govern: you needed to have rules and parliament,’ she explains.
It’s a reminder that Miller came to prominence not as a campaigner for Remain but as a defender of parliamentary process. Like her, Gladstone had opprobrium heaped on him. ‘He was vilified by people on both sides, which is why I seek solace in some of his work. I get abuse from everywhere. If you try to bring in shades of grey, people don’t like that.’
Like everyone else, she is caught up in the dichotomy of the referendum moment. Though sometimes pegged as a symbol for Remain, Miller, a wealth manager who has donated to the Labour Party – and then left Labour over its anti-Semitism – can sometimes be difficult to place on the political spectrum.
The scale of the abuse is alarming. ‘I’ve got to a place that isn’t healthy,’ she admits, with cheerful resilience. ‘I’m always on listening mode – and it’s not just someone shouting something rude. If we [Gina and her husband Alan] go out, someone’s got their phone on the table next to us, and you can see them trying to record our conversation.’
But Miller doesn’t snipe back: ‘Hate is such a waste of time,’ she says.
Her famous 2016 encounter with Nigel Farage on The Andrew Marr Show is recalled cheerfully: ‘I was terrified: whatever you think about him, he is one of the best at communicating with the media.’
She continues: ‘I happen to be good at reading people: I saw that he was nervous. I still don’t know why he was. I patted the sofa and said, “Nigel, come and sit close.”
He was already off his game. I don’t think he knew what to make of me.’
Her view of Jacob Rees-Mogg becomes a conduit to a wider point: ‘The absurdity of it somehow masks the seriousness of it. They’re playing on people because we’re quite an addictive nation. We get addicted to ideas, to alcohol and going out: it’s quite easy to sway us as a nation.’
On Boris Johnson: ‘I think he’s damaged his brand, but I hear he’s running. It’s so absurd. He’d need someone very good behind him because he’s not good at the detail.’ Interestingly, she also wonders whether Ken Clarke could perhaps serve as leader if May were to go (‘He could be the caretaker,’ she says).
On the left, she places faith in the Barnsley Central MP and recently elected mayor of Sheffield, Dan Jarvis: ‘He could bring the country together.’
Sometimes Miller’s opinions can surprise you. Of the Leave campaign she says: ‘For one minute give them credit – they were clever.’ On the prime minister, she strikes a sympathetic note: ‘On a human level, I have no idea how Mrs May’s still there. She has type 1 diabetes, she’s under stress, and she’s being manipulated and bullied. Why can nobody give her that?’
Miller orders tortellini and another glass of champagne. We begin talking about her new book, Rise: this was protested against, somewhat ludicrously, before it was even written. ‘There’s already a campaign for when the book comes out for everyone to burn it. I said to the publishers, “It’s OK: they’ve got to buy it first.”’
The book itself details – among other things – Miller’s relationship with her father, Doodnauth Singh, a remarkable Atticus Finch-like figure who rose from selling petrol in his teens to become attorney general of Guyana. ‘He would tell me his stories,’ she recalls. ‘Ironically, he and his friends were starting a political party to stop our dictatorship but he didn’t want to be the politician fronting it.’ Miller doesn’t need to draw the obvious parallel.
A powerful image emerges of a kindly father talking to his young daughter about his cases, exactly as if she were an adult – a parenting technique Miller emulates with her own children. ‘I’d lie at the top of the stairs,’ she recalls, ‘and I could smell the smoke. I didn’t know what they were talking about – it was the way they spoke. They were talking about meaningful things. They’d disagree then hug each other at the end of the night.’
She is most worried about the effect of fame on her husband Alan – her partner in business and life. ‘He used to have friends in the City he doesn’t hear from now,’ she says, referring perhaps to her assault on transparency in the wealth management industry, which culminated in MiFID II, which came into force in January.
But if Alan is protective of his wife, I worry about how he felt about Rise, in which she writes graphically about her experience as a victim of domestic abuse during her first marriage. ‘It’s one of our last taboos: there’s a myth that only meek, uneducated women suffer from it,’ she says.
Our pasta finished, Miller decides against dessert. Instead she orders green tea. She explains that she sees herself – like her father – as primarily a storyteller. Further, narrative is for her a means of education: ‘I say to children in schools, “Politics isn’t something someone else does, it happens every single day of your life: from what time your bus turns up to who collects your rubbish.”’
She even wonders whether a gap in education might have created the conditions for the polarised nature of society: ‘If you haven’t got strong foundations in yourself, it’s much easier to be led. Are we teaching our children resilience or are they quite fragile individuals?’
I suspect that Miller’s fear is not so much our leaving the EU as the lack of regulation that would flow out of that eventuality. On food standards, she recalls challenging Leavers on what they’d do in the event of a BSE outbreak post-Brexit: ‘The answer was: “We would label food, saying that it might have BSE, and lower the price.” But then the people who can afford the safer products will buy those!’
The two hours have passed quickly: I realise I’ve been in receipt of a tremendous flow of moral energy. When Miller says she’s a fatalist, I say that if that’s true she’s an exceedingly dynamic one. ‘I like that – a dynamic fatalist.’ Then she adds: ‘Extremists take advantage of the liberal-minded silence.’
Photography by Graham Harper
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s