Q&A with Gina Miller

Gina Miller is a Guyanese and British financial services professional, entrepreneur and self-described transparency activist. She is also the founder of SCMDirect.com and the True and Fair Campaign. In 2016, Gina initiated the court case R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, challenging the UK government’s authority to initiate the Brexit process without approval from Parliament. We recently sat down with Gina to discuss her book Rise, her involvement in the ongoing debate over Brexit, and her views on gender and racial diversity. The opinions and views expressed are Gina’s own, and the interview has been edited for publication.

Q. Your story in Rise really resonated with us. Tell us more about your earlier years. What did you miss most about Guyana when you moved to the UK?

Growing up in a country and home filled with music, food and freedom was absolutely joyous. The sounds of birds, the smell of ripening fruits—mangoes, papaya and wonderful Latin rhythms. Sitting around a table with mum’s delicious cooking and dad’s fascinating conversations with my four siblings—my memories are of laughter and feeding our bellies as well as our souls.

Q. When we read Rise, we smiled thinking about an image you describe from the day of the Article 50 challenge: you, flanked by two female Mishcon associates, walking ahead of senior men on your legal team. How important is gender diversity to you?

My view is that gender diversity should be important to all of us—it is about equality and fairness. I believe it is particularly important to support women in the work environment as I am troubled by the fact that there is still such inequality 100 years after the suffragettes first secured the right for women to vote in the UK. When I brought my Article 50 challenge, I was keen that my legal team included women, and I wanted the women that were involved to be prominent throughout. Working with these women confirmed to me that the challenges women face in the legal field are very similar to the challenges I, like many other women, have faced in the financial services sector. Whilst working on my case, the female members of my legal team had to work late nights because it was the time when—having put our children to bed—we had the opportunity to progress additional work, uninterrupted.

My observations of the challenges women face in the legal profession are the same as in other professions, especially the lack of infrastructural support, flexible working schedules and the way work is valued in the workplace generally. I really believe that work should be more outcome-driven and not so focused on office presence and visibility. Flexibility in modern working practices should be offered in order to encourage and ensure women’s progression in the professions. Otherwise, the middle management exodus, exacerbated by trying to balance work with children, will continue. Having said that, I believe it should apply to both men and women—fathers and mothers—to make it a genuinely equal playing field.

Q. Since the Article 50 challenge, you have become much more prominent in the public eye. How did you get involved in Brexit in the first place?

I got involved in Brexit back in October 2015, when I was invited to take part in referendum-related debates organised by Remain campaigners. They were looking for more female voices, business voices, and ethnic minority voices—with me they got 3 in 1! The organisers were aware of my very vocal campaigning voice in the financial services and charity sectors. In financial services I had already earned the nicknames the “black widow” and industry “wrecking ball” for calling out dubious practices that were still occurring after the financial crisis.

My husband and I had been lobbying the UK Treasury, industry, regulators, and politicians for enhanced transparency and consumer protection in the investment and pension industry since 2009, but to no avail. We therefore took our campaign to EU Member States’ national regulators and international regulators such as ESMA (the European Securities and Markets Authority) and to the EU Council and Parliament in 2012. We eventually drafted and contributed to three EU Directives between 2012 and 2015. As a result of our contributions, we now have vastly improved investor protection across the entire EU. I developed a solid understanding of how EU institutions work from this lobbying experience.

I remember my first public Brexit speaking engagement. It was in a hall at Westminster, in a room of around 300 people. I was there with a moderator (now the Editor of The Telegraph) in the middle. On one side of us were the financier and campaigner Dame Helena Morrissey and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lamont; and on the other was Luke Johnson, the former Chairman of the Channel 4 Television Corporation, and a prominent Vote Leave backer. I had not been briefed at all by my side. What I heard that day in the green room and at the event dinner, and at many subsequent events and debates, was that almost everyone believed Brexit to be a mere topic for debate rather than a serious or realistic possibility. Few people I met on either side of the debate thought that the Vote Leave would succeed. There was genuinely no plan in place and no thought of what would happen the day after the vote on 23 June 2016.

Q. In Rise you describe the reasons why you decided to bring the Article 50 challenge. Are you happy with the way things have played out since that vote? What would you change?

If I could change anything, it would be for my case to have resulted in a clearer and more specified roadmap as to what should come next. For example, I would hope for some requirements that substantive debates take place, and that impact studies and risk analyses on different scenarios be commissioned. I would have liked us to obtain clarification on what would constitute a meaningful vote and the exact nature of parliamentary scrutiny. This is in keeping with what we would do going into any important business venture or negotiations.

However, in reality, I do not think the courts would have felt competent to provide such a ruling. It is right that the courts rule on the black and white letter of the law and do not stray into politics. I was very impressed and thankful nevertheless by the outcome. I remember when we went before Lord Leveson in the Administrative Court—none of my team nor I were confident that we were going to be granted permission to bring the case. The fact that we were reaffirmed my confidence in the British justice system.

Q. In what other ways has the challenge affected your view of the British justice system?

First, I have come to realise—and my experience has emphasised—the need for lawyers to provide a holistic service, particularly where cases attract the public gaze. As a client in the midst of a media storm you need PR support, support from other lawyers with different expertise—for example media and libel lawyers—as well as just a shoulder to cry on when the intensity of the public glare gets to be too much.

Second, it is clear that with a hollowing out of legal aid, more efforts should be taken to encourage law firms to take on more pro bono work. In the end I was insistent that we paid junior members of our team because I felt it was unfair not to, but the senior team who worked on the case did so on a largely pro bono basis. Had they not done so, costs would have easily escalated into the millions of pounds. I will be forever grateful to them. When cases are of national importance—policy imperatives or wider social justice—they should be done on a pro-bono basis and as part of law firms’ CSR initiatives.

Q. The Article 50 challenge has had a huge impact on politics, leading to the current debate in Parliament on the Brexit deal. What is your opinion on how Parliament will resolve the deadlock? What do you think is the right course for Britain?

In my view, the entire process has been back-to-front. Following my challenge, the government should have carried out debates and impact studies, and Article 50 should only have been triggered when there was an agreed consensus on a strategic direction. If there is no consensus in Parliament for a customs union or Mrs. May’s deal, then we must revoke Article 50.

It breaks my heart to see the great British lion almost vanquished. The great irony of all of this is that Britain will have to look on in the years ahead as the EU sets about reforming itself. We should have been there at the table helping to shape and share this future.

Q. What are your views on a second referendum? Are you prepared to, as Politico put it, “pick another fight”?

I actually strategized a second referendum at the beginning of 2018. I mentioned it to a few politicians and said that we were doing some testing, as I do with all my campaigns. Whilst I knew there was some appetite for it, I did not feel that the time was right as we didn’t have a full communication and campaign strategy in place. I have always thought that a second referendum needed to be on the table as a last-ditch solution, rather than an option from the outset. We are, after all, for all its strengths and weaknesses, a representative democracy. As we stand with our toes close to the cliff edge, turning towards a confirmatory vote must be given careful and serious consideration.

Q. What are your deepest fears regarding Brexit?

My deepest fears regarding Brexit emanate from the fact that after two years we still have no deal or solution in place. Article 50 is not a well drafted piece of legislation, as no one really thought it would be used—it is silent on so much. The Withdrawal Act is also silent on many issues and predicated on the fact that there would be an agreement. A hard or no-deal Brexit takes us into constitutionally, legally and politically unchartered waters, which is terrifying. In addition, I could not think of a worse time from a geopolitical point of view to be going through with Brexit, particularly in the global context of growing nationalistic fervour and trade wars. I fear that Brexit will allow those who wish to deepen divisions for ideological reasons to be in control.

Q. What positive things do you see coming out of Brexit?

I believe there will be more discussion and thought put into three key areas: firstly, partly codifying our constitution; secondly, devolved policy and finance, so that not everything is controlled from Westminster; and, thirdly, a review and reform of our politics in all its facets, leading to more accountability, more scrutiny and a clearing out of a professional political class.

Q. Following the Article 50 challenge you became the target of verbal abuse and physical threats. How did you deal with that?

Words of abuse targeted at me do not and will never hurt me. Those who have targeted me with verbal abuse do not understand who I am, where I come from, or the strength I have due to the failures and traumas in my past. They can throw anything at me and none of it really affects me. My determination is to fight for a country and society that my children can live in without fear because of the colour of their skin, their religion or who they are. However, I have been reduced to tears when I received death threats against my children. They are horrible to read, and they do frighten me, but I am grateful for having my own security team and a high level of protection afforded to me by the government.

Q. Your campaigning work in the charity sector, as with all your other campaigns, has been about greater accountability, transparency and ethics. Are there any other social justice projects that you are passionate about?

I launched EndtheChaos.co.uk, an open source platform in September 2018, in an attempt to give people some clarity and understanding around Brexit, and to answer people’s questions in a balanced way. For example, I realised that in the media nobody was really discussing rights in the context of Brexit, so we launched an Equalities and Rights section on the website in which we highlight the rights people have in the UK, including women’s rights, disability rights, LGBTQI rights, and workers’ rights. What I found interesting was that a lot of people didn’t actually know they had those rights in the first place.

I also launched Leadnotleave.com in January 2019, which aims to talk about future solutions rather than yesterday’s problems, both on a domestic and EU level.

Post Brexit, I will return to campaigning for responsible capitalism, shining more light on domestic violence, working to expose the lack of safeguarding in the charity sector, and of course campaigning for a more ethical investment and pension sector.

Q. What is something that we can’t learn about your from your book or public life?

I am an adrenaline junky and self-confessed petrol-head, and I have especially loved free climbing across the world—Gozo, Namibia, Wattenberg, the Amazon. Climbing presented me with physical and mental challenges that allowed me to switch off from everything else. A rock often presented me with a puzzle that I had to solve through a combination of precise body movements and mental discipline. Whenever I reached the top, the vista gave me such a tremendous feeling of humility. I use the past tense as I have paid the price with arthritic thumbs and bad shoulders and back.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside of work and politics?

I generally enjoy snuggling up and doing anything with my children, whether it be dancing or climbing and trekking to unusual places. I used to love sitting in public places—a shopping centre or even the tube. I enjoyed watching people and absorbing their stories. With my current profile I miss the ability to do this.

Q. How would you like to be remembered in three words?

Other people mattered.

Akima Paul Lambert is an international counsel and Nadya Rouben is an associate in Debevoise’s London office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.