What would you be prepared to sacrifice for your ideals? Your privacy? Your life?
Gina Miller was forced to confront these questions when she took legal action to defend the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. She rose to national prominence when she successfully took the British Government to the Supreme Court, challenging its authority to trigger Article 50, the formal notification to leave the European Union, without parliamentary approval.
Her victory has come at a terrible price. Guyana-born Ms Miller has become the target of racist and sexist abuse from trolls who have accused her of trying to block Brexit.
But she was among friends when she visited Yorkshire. The calm setting of the Royal Armouries’ New Dock Hall seemed a world away from the turmoil of the Supreme Court battle. Ms Miller was in Leeds to speak at the Forward Ladies National awards and encourage other women to make their voices heard. The event is a celebration of female drive and enterprise.
She was in front of a receptive audience, whose most intrusive demand was for selfies. But her court battle cast a long shadow.
“The DNA that runs through everything I do is exactly the same; people deserve honesty and transparency,’’ she said. “To give people the truth is very important.”
However, she was taken aback by the torrent of abuse she faced because of her decision to take the Government to court. She received rape and beheading threats from online trolls.
“I expected some sort of a backlash,’’ she said. “I didn’t envisage I was going to be on my own.
“Everybody was talking about parliamentary sovereignty. I thought other people, other voices, academics and business people would come forth. It was in a very febrile environment. People felt frightened to speak up. If good people stay silent, bad things happen.”
When the abuse was at its worst – and her children were being threatened – Ms Miller found new reserves of strength to battle on.
“I realised that I need to fight for this,’’ she said. “These voices must not become mainstream. That’s where I got the courage from.
“One of the things I found most disturbing is this idea that as a woman, it’s not my place to speak up. As a woman of colour, I have no right to speak up; I should be grateful for society accepting me. The third thing was that I couldn’t be bright enough and I must have men behind me pulling my strings.
“If you examine those three responses to what I’ve said and done, it tells a very sad tale of our country.”
According to Ms Miller, Brexit almost acted as a heart attack to our nation, because it opened up questions that had been neglected.
Ms Miller is no stranger to adversity. She came to Britain as a 13-year-old with her brother to escape civil war and death threats to her family. They had to learn how to survive without their parents.
“I never blamed anyone. It was just about being strong and surviving and that’s when I discovered how strong I was,” she said.
“Not because I’m stubborn or hard working but because I’m flexible. I understand that strength is how you overcome adversity. It’s about how you pick yourself up, about how you examine your failures and see the opportunities in them.”
Today, Ms Miller is a businesswoman, philanthropist and “responsible capitalist”. She has been a tireless campaigner for investment and pension reform for more than 20 years.
Bloomberg has described her as an ‘establishment wrecking ball’ but she insists she seeks reform rather than destruction.
In 2012 she launched a transparency initiative, the True and Fair Campaign, which called for an end to dubious practices in the UK investment and pension industry, as well as a code of ethics.
She supports small community charities, and works with donors on smarter giving so that their donations achieve maximum impact.
Ms Miller has also criticised elements of the charity sector for poor practices. Today, she is continuing with what she describes as a “democracy and legality” watching brief on the Government.
In September last year, Ms Miller launched the End the Chaos campaign. The campaign, according to Ms Miller, aims to provide understandable information about Brexit so people can make decisions about their future.
She believes we need to re-define what constitutes strength and understand the value of listening.
“Being strong does not mean being stubborn or inflexible,” she said.
“There is this idea you have to be very loud and very fixed in your ways to be strong. True strength is about being flexible and listening as much as speaking.
“Success does not come without failure; it’s how we learn from failing and picking ourselves up. There are going to be failures in all walks of our lives, professionally and personally, so we might as well put together a toolkit for dealing with failure pretty early on.”
She also hopes political debate can become more civilised. Politicians should think deeply before they speak because their choice of words has consequences.
“Language is one of the most important things. Language and the whole Brexit debate has been weaponised.”
She believes inequality has been allowed to become a cultural norm, which is threatening the wellbeing of us all.
“I get pigeonholed into people thinking I am just worried about Brexit,’’ she said
“My whole concern originally was around the state of our constitution. Now I’m worried about the state of our country and what will happen because there is a shifting of attitudes.”
Extreme voices have always existed in Britain, but they had been at the fringes, Ms Miller said.
“Somehow, Brexit has managed to make them front and centre and louder.”
Many people have expressed concerns that Government in Britain has become too centralised. Ms Miller believes devolution might help to redress the imbalance.
She said: “Trickle-down economics has not worked for the UK. The centralisation of finances and policy in Westminster has not worked for our country.
“I absolutely agree that more power should be devolved to the regions. It’s absolutely vital.”
She believes the uncertainty caused by Brexit has stopped us from addressing some of the biggest issues facing Britain, such as the long-term consequences of austerity and the financial crisis.
She is a big fan of a Yorkshire writer who knew how to use language as a force for good – JB Priestley, whose work is all about the value of an active social conscience.
Ms Miller loves Priestley’s work because it has “a sense of justice; patriotism that is not about nationalism”.
She added: “It’s about communities and societies. It is really important that we re-visit that.”
Ms Miller received a standing ovation from many at the Forward Ladies lunch. The audience might have hoped that political debate was marching back towards a civilisation. It was a forlorn hope. Last month, Ms Miller tweeted: “We must all speak up to stop those inciting racial and sexual violence. When I was on College Green last week, they were shouting ‘gas Gina Miller’.”
Another day, another death threat for Gina Miller. But it’s impossible to imagine her being cowed into silence by anyone.
Gina Miller takes a dim view of many members of the UK’s political class.
She said: “I’ve seen politicians up close and personal and I have been really disappointed. We have professional politicians who behave like actors. They have lost all sense of purpose and integrity.
“We have to be responsible for holding our elected representatives to scrutiny. Policies and politics aren’t something that happen somewhere else. It affects every part of our life. We all have a civic responsibility.”
She also believes that measures to help women get to the top leave a lot to be desired.
She said: “The whole push for diversity and equality for women in business has been more around a tickbox exercise.
“There has been very little infrastructure change that allows women to come into the workplace. Even when it is there, it’s at entry level or the top level. It’s not at that middle level where women need to step up for the next senior management position.
“There’s this huge push to encourage women into the workplace, but then you have to be seen to be at your post. There’s very little flexible working. It’s not about quality of delivery, it’s about presence. Those sorts of measures really hold us back.”