Interview

The Bane of the Brexiteers

How Gina Miller threw a wrench into Britain’s plans to leave the EU.

Gina Miller in London on Nov. 29, 2016. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Gina Miller in London on Nov. 29, 2016. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Gina Miller, a British businesswoman who co-founded the wealth management firm SCM Direct, is a former Labour Party member and campaigner for transparency and scrutiny in relation to Brexit. In 2016, she successfully challenged the British government’s authority to invoke Article 50, which would trigger the process of leaving the European Union, without an act of Parliament. After the U.K. Supreme Court ruled in her favor in January 2017, she became the target of violent and vitriolic abuse; she channeled that experience into the 2018 memoir Rise: Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall & Leading the Way. Her organization, End the Chaos, has continued to campaign for a public vote on any deal negotiated by the British government and the European Union, including an option to remain in the EU, if there is a parliamentary impasse. Miller has also raised funds to back electoral candidates opposed to a hard Brexit.

Foreign Policy: What did you intend to accomplish with your lawsuit?

Gina Miller: The case was about preserving hundreds of years of constitutional precedent in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May was proposing to use an ancient tool called the royal prerogative and behave like a president. Well, that’s not the way our constitution works, unwritten as it is. The prime minister can’t put him or herself above the law, and, when it comes to our individual rights as citizens, Parliament has to be front and center and provide scrutiny.

FP: Do you think that if there were a second referendum, it could unleash an even worse backlash?

GM: Absolutely not. That idea is made up by politicians who profit from scaremongering. Brexiteers are saying that because they are fearful of losing. If you’re so confident that not only would you win but it would be a bigger victory, just consult the will of the people. If you’re so confident that not only would you win but it would be a bigger victory, just consult the will of the people.

FP: So why haven’t you gone into politics?

GM: The way our politics works makes it very difficult to have a truly independent voice. You stand on a collective manifesto, meaning it is difficult to vote with your conscience. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t in the future.

One of the reasons the country is at this point is because of the whole idea that capitalism was good and that trickle-down economics would work. It has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but it’s created huge divides. My big battle is around the idea of responsible capitalism: Do we evolve toward a triple bottom line, which is not just about a drive for profit but for people, profit, and the planet, so that we create a more equal society?

[The Parkland students want gun control on the ballot.]

FP: Couldn’t that be a campaign slogan for the Liberal Democrats?

GM: No. Because being a member of a club ties your hands and your voice, and I’m not willing to do that.

FP: Let’s imagine that there is a people’s vote and it goes the way that you want. What is your sense of how the Conservative Party would react?

GM: I don’t think this is really about Brexit. This is about the sort of country we want to be. A minority of individuals on the right of the Tory Party think, when it comes to money-laundering checks, if people can bring money into our country and want to do business and boost our economy, why should we say no to them?

FP: So, a pro-business crowd is saying this will be a disaster for the economy, and then there’s a second, more cutthroat, Darwinian business position?

GM: Think about it like a gym. Rather than build our gym in our home, we chose to go to another one. We don’t have the infrastructure. Our business model and the way we have operated has changed over the last 40-45 years. You then try to reverse all of that without giving any time to build it up. We have small businesses that predominantly trade with the EU. That’s their main market. How are they going to cope? That’s the bottom line for them. It’s not about profit—it’s how we actually even stay in business.

FP: And are you able to bring over some of those people to the arguments that you’re making?

GM: The main message my End the Chaos campaign is trying to get out is, “Just be honest and tell people.” We haven’t allowed people to have a reasoned debate based on the facts. Why are we not listening to the port authorities? Why are we not listening to the doctors?

FP: Because we don’t need experts?

GM: None of this is new. If you look through history, how do you destabilize countries? It’s easy. You knock experts. You knock the rule of law, and you use the media as propaganda.

FP: Why hasn’t the message got through to Leave voters who, presumably, would be devastated by those policies?

GM: You’ve already poisoned the well. I was speaking to an IT specialist at Cambridge Analytica [which assisted the Leave campaign in 2016]. I asked, “What were the most successful ads you were running?” One ad said sharia was coming to the U.K. and immigrants can marry children. Which is not true at all. And the second one was that immigrants eat dogs. And that’s where they were so clever—because it’s about tuning in to people’s emotions. It’s hearts, not minds.

[In striking down a ban on gay sex, India’s Supreme Court inspired activists across the world, Frank Mugisha writes.]

FP: If there were another vote, do you think that you could reverse some of that messaging?

GM: The Leave campaign exploited differences. They were actively going out to Asian communities and saying, “The reason your kids are not doing well at university is because all these white immigrants are coming in and they assimilate, whereas your kids are not going to be able to. And, by the way, they can bring in all their family, and you can’t.”

FP: Was one of the errors of the Remain campaign writing off these Leave voters as, “Oh, they’re dumb. They don’t understand”?

GM: Everywhere I went had Leave posters, and the Remain campaign did not believe me. They said I worried too much, that British people don’t take risks. They were so arrogant. I think there is a bigger danger here, which is that we’ve elevated expectations in a group of people who have nothing to lose because they have so little anyway. I think there’s more of a chance of having civil unrest because the people who voted Leave are not going to get what they were promised.

FP: Are you facing any threats or sort of personal harassment?

GM: It’s never stopped. When you get somebody who would have been, traditionally, in the U.K., at the end of a bar in a pub spouting whatever, you now have that same person on Facebook with 500 likes. Those people who have had those views and whispered them are now shouting them. And that’s what I get. They’re shouting at me. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. @sasha_p_s

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