Gina Miller: the decidedly British woman who took the British government to court, successfully challenging its authority to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. It is for this she is most renowned, and for which she has faced an eruption of something like mass hysteria.
She has been castigated in a number of quarters and in a variety of ways as a foreign interloper trying to undermine the will of the British people – even though she was actually born a British citizen in what was then the colony British Guiana and considered herself to be defending our democracy when she led the case against the government. There have been countless comments, emails and tweets, of which a small sample:
‘From the colour of your skin, you’re just a piece of shit. And shit should just be trodden on and I’m going to do that to your face.’
‘You’re nothing but a rich man’s whore. You should be locked up and taken out once a day for a good banging.’
‘A Jo Cox killing would be too good for you.’
‘You’re not even human, just an ugly ape who needs whipping into obedience.’
Miller jokes that she has become very tech-savvy lately, knows how to trace IP addresses even when communications have been bounced around. But it hasn’t been all anonymous trolls online. Hand-written letters, enveloped and stamped and posted have also called her ape, called her the n-word, and told her ‘you’re only good for sex. You should go back to being a whore, which must be how you earned your money, but your days are done.’ One group sent her a series of three comic books depicting her gang rape, the torture and murder of her children, and finally her own hunting. There have been the phone calls, and the people standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice with her name printed on their chests and nooses hanging round their necks. There have been people who, passing her in the street, hiss ‘black bitch.’ There was Rhodri Philipps, a middle-aged man with a handful of inherited titles who posted quite openly on Facebook offering a bounty of £5,000 ‘for the first person to “accidentally run over this bloody troublesome first-generation immigrant.’ He added, ‘if this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.’
Daily Mail ran an article suggesting that burning at the stake might be ‘too kind’ for this modern-day Joan of Arc. (Miller rarely names names in the book, which is rather gracious of her, but it’s easy enough to find out that the latter was Ruth Sunderland. The offending line was removed after Miller protested that it was in breach of the Editors’ Code.) Daily Mail ran other hatchet-jobs, too, as did the Sun and Daily Express, unable to prevent themselves from referring to her in their headlines as (misleadingly) ‘the former model’ and (erroneously) ‘foreign-born’, or from taking malicious delight in accusatory references to her three marriages and present wealth – by implication, always ill-gotten from men. None of them refer to her as ‘the former chamber maid’ (her first job, aged thirteen); of course, that wouldn’t invite hatred in the same way.
Like Miller, I list these examples not to invite pity, but because they are very revealing of the state of the British psyche. Powerful currents of racist and sexist hatred have surfaced; they were always there, but for a time repressed, half-concealed. Miller has long been familiar with the milder stirrings of them: bullying at school when she first came to the mother country aged 11; the professors who told her that an ‘ethnic woman’ like her couldn’t hope to become a barrister; the white woman who discredited her tale of sexual harassment in the workplace, claiming that the man in question only liked blondes and ‘wouldn’t go for a woman like you’.
‘Sexism today is far more nuanced than it used to be,’ writes Miller, but in the wake of the Brexit referendum she believes that racism is becoming more openly acceptable once again. She was born a British citizen and her accent is flawlessly south England; the only case against her is the colour of her skin. ‘I can look after myself because I’m older, tougher, but my children can’t. If the country they’re going to grow up in ends up looking like an intolerant nation where they feel ashamed of who they are and get treated as second-class citizens, then my family and I would leave. … You can change your accent, you can speak differently to fit in, but you can never change the colour of your skin.’ She writes that she once found her daughter trying to scrub hers white; she’s heard the same story from other parents. In the Q & A section at the end of the talk a white audience member originally from the Netherlands speaks of her daughter being told by her peers to go back to her country. After the talk I spoke to a gentleman born in Switzerland but raised in the UK who spoke of the increase in xenophobic ‘banter’ in the workplace since the referendum. Of course many of us will have been reading or hearing of such increases. What will we do about it? ‘It’s no one else’s problem,’ says Miller: ‘we are all part of the solution, we all have to be responsible.’
She admits ‘it’s very upsetting at times because it’s not the country I thought I lived in … ‘This is a country that’s going off the rails in a way I could never have imagined was possible in the UK.’ But it’s her home, and she has little intention of abandoning it if she can help it. ‘I’m just not going to let them win.’
The case that Miller led against the government won’t be her last fight, and neither was it her first. ‘Like most people I didn’t pop up from nowhere – I’ve been campaigning for 30 years now,’ she pointed out at the beginning of the talk. The fights have been personal as well as for the wider public: she had to begin earning when she was still at school, aged 13, living in England without parents or guardian; the reason she didn’t finish her first degree is that she was brutally attacked as a student by a gang of young men who mistook her for an Indian girl and decided to punish her for her Westernised comportment; she has been a single working parent raising a daughter with learning difficulties, unsupported by family or the child’s father, waiting on tables and taking the odd modelling job to pay the bills; she has been a single parent homeless with her child in flight from an abusive second marriage.
It is in despite of these obstacles and setbacks that she has grown to be so successful – not only financially, but in that she is someone who really makes things happen. It has cost, and continues to cost her a great deal to assert power in this world; imagine what a woman like Gina Miller could achieve if she weren’t using up so much of her energy struggling against racial and sexual hatred just to get to a position from which she can act. Imagine what all the women like Gina Miller could achieve…
Which is, of course, the thrust of her book.