By the time coronavirus turned us into a nation of hermits, Gina Miller was already well-drilled in the bunker mentality. It is almost five years since the investment manager and campaigner took the Government to court over its handling of Brexit, but while the case resulted in a Supreme Court hearing and was hailed as a victory for democracy, for Miller there were untold personal consequences.
In the days and weeks that followed, the 55-year-old was peppered by abuse across social media. Most of the insults didn’t penetrate Miller’s famously thick skin, but the death threats were less easy to ignore.
“One said they were going to kidnap my children and the next time I’d hear from them was when they’d send me back their heads,” says Miller. “You tell yourself that it’s just a threat, but when you are facing abuse at every turn it’s an incredibly sobering experience.
“We spent much more time at home, we blew the dust off board games we hadn’t played for years and when I did venture out I had to disguise myself. When the pandemic arrived and forced people to stay at home, very little changed for us. Our lives had already shrunk.”
Miller says the youngest of her two daughters was particularly affected by the fallout of the Brexit case in which she successfully fought against the triggering of Article 50 until parliament had been properly consulted. However, she insists she has no regrets about becoming the face of the campaign.
“If I went out my daughter would sit on the stairs waiting for me to return,” she says. “And if I wasn’t back a minute later than expected she would start
to panic. I am sure there were times when she wished I hadn’t done what I did, but as I explained to her, as a mother my responsibility is to make the world a better place for my children and sometimes that means putting yourself in difficult situations.”
Guyana-born Miller traces her campaigning streak to her father. Doodnauth Singh was a former Attorney General who also served as a member of the country’s National Assembly and instilled in his children a sense of civic duty from an early age.
“I have been fighting for the causes I believe in for 30 years or more and for that I definitely have to thank my father. We discussed politics around the dinner table and he raised us to believe that all people had the right to be treated fairly. It’s a simple philosophy, but it is one which underlines everything I do.
“I am not naive, when you speak out you have to expect criticism but what I can’t accept is those who tell me that as an immigrant I should be quietly grateful, that I should know my place. Everyone has a right to a voice.”
That belief is one of the reasons Miller was keen to contribute to a new book. Published on March 23, the first anniversary of the lockdown, by Sheffield-based And Other Stories, This is How We Come Back Stronger is a manifesto for change after the pandemic and Miller has written on the issue of domestic violence, inspired by her own experience of an abusive relationship.
“There still persists the idea that to become a victim of domestic violence you are either weak or stupid,” she says. “It still remains the only crime where the victim has to leave their home in order to get help and that can’t be right.
“The pandemic has exposed huge flaws in society, particularly in the way we treat the vulnerable. It has forced us to talk about families who survive on food banks and about the gaps in social care provisions, but I do worry that it is just talk. Following the financial crash of 2008 there were similar conversations about stamping down on corruption and protecting ordinary people. There were lots of good intentions, but in truth very little changed. We papered over the cracks and we can’t do that again.”
Miller came to England in the 1970s when she was enrolled in a private school in Eastbourne. When currency controls prevented her family sending money overseas, she found a job working as a chambermaid in a local hotel. It was, she says, a good lesson in the fragility of privilege and, with an eldest daughter who suffers from learning difficulties, her desire to fight for the underdog only intensified.
“The UK economy has suffered its deepest slump since 1709 and if we don’t protect the most vulnerable then we will all have reason to feel guilty. Capitalism and the aggressive pursuit of profits by the big corporates is failing people.”
It was while watching the fallout from the pandemic that Miller launched a campaign to reform wills legislation to allow documents to be witnessed remotely rather than in person. The fight is ongoing, but the experience also resulted in her setting up Messages of Love, a free “digital memory box” which can be passed onto loved ones.
“I saw on the news a story of a young boy who had been taken to hospital with Covid. He sadly died without his parents getting to say goodbye. Over the months that has happened to so many others. It struck me that we all have things we want to say, pictures and videos we want to share and wouldn’t it be good if there was a place where you could store those memories which could then be passed onto our loved ones after our death.
“When I was in the eye of the Brexit storm I wrote letters to my children and my husband. I’ll admit that the latter was more of a manual to running the house, but it felt good to do.”
Ever the optimist, Miller believes the country she has called home for the best part of half a century is more tolerant than the one she experienced as a teenager, but she fears we are all in danger of being hoodwinked by a government who she accuses of a Henry VIII-style power grab.
“Hundreds of changes to our laws have been made through the use of secondary legislation. It’s been done under the guise of disentangling us from the EU but it has occurred without a sufficient degree of scrutiny. Not only that but moves are afoot to alter the judicial review process which allows the public to challenge Government decisions. The Government’s desire to increase its Henry VIII powers dates back 10 years, possibly more.”
Before coronavirus, Miller says she went out of her way to meet those who were from the opposite end of the political spectrum. However, despite going on a tour of Leave-voting constituencies she says she has no desire to stand for election.
“I think my best place is trying to affect change from the outside. Vanessa Redgrave once said, ‘if you can’t help at least be helpful’. That’s the mantra I have adopted. I can’t take on every deserving cause, but hopefully I can point people in the right direction and empower them to make change.”
This is How We Come Back Stronger is published on March 23. To order a copy visit andotherstories.org.
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.