When Gina Miller challenged the Prime Minister’s decision to invoke Brexit’s Article 50, she became Britain’s most hated woman. She and her children were subjected to a barrage of abuse and horrific death threats, yet this is nothing compared to the trauma that Gina had already endured. She opens up to Rachel Johnson about suffering – and surviving – some of the worst things that can happen to anyone.
Along with Nigel Farage, David Cameron and, er, my brother Boris Johnson, Gina Miller was one of the most famous faces of the EU referendum. You can’t forget her: the concerned citizen who challenged the Prime Minister’s decision to invoke Article 50 – the legal mechanism for starting Brexit – without letting Parliament have a say. And won. She came out of the High Court (black trouser suit and heels, always heels) and walked into the history books, reading a short statement from a scrap of paper to the world’s media.
‘The result today is about all of us; it’s not about me or my team,’ she said in her precise, clear way. ‘It’s about our UK and all our futures. This case was about process, not politics.’ Gina said then – and still insists – that she has never opposed Brexit but that’s not the issue. ‘My case was not whether [Brexit] was right or wrong. My point was the rule of law had to be properly observed.’
From that moment, this elegant, direct and articulate Guyanese-born mother and businesswoman – who sits in front of me, cool and collected in a navy silk print dress in her smart offices in Chelsea – became the most divisive figure in the country. ‘I was the most hated woman in Britain,’ she says.
Two years on, Gina and her family still live under security. She gets constant death threats by email, letter – even via parcels sent to Westminster that dutiful clerks forward on to her home address. Strangers in the street inform her in graphic terms how they want her and her children to die. One newspaper even suggested that she should be burned at the stake. She tells me matter-of-factly, as if spouting case law, that she’s been called the Brexit bitch. The black widow spider.
That she represents such an apparent existential threat to many people (simply for securing Parliament’s consent to the most momentous and far-reaching decision this country has taken since the Second World War) that she must be hunted and beheaded; she must watch as the throats of her children are cut and then be burned alive. Her head should be placed on Traitor’s Gate. And worse… It’s chilling. Yet to listen to her speak so calmly, and to read her haunting and frank new memoir, Rise, is also reassuring. You realise that there is nothing the haters can throw at Gina. She has already – like Tiresias in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land – ‘foresuffered all’.
Gina Miller left home aged 11 to go to an all-girls boarding school in the UK, where she was homesick and bullied. Then, as a student, she was violently assaulted. Her eldest daughter, Lucy-Ann, born when Gina was 23, has a mental age of six and will never live independently. And her second husband, she claims, was a drinker who beat her badly (he denies this), forcing her to flee with her daughter. For a time they lived like vagrants, sleeping in her ‘little blue car’ in multistory car parks in Wiltshire. So all the ugly threats and abuse from angry Leavers, terrified she is somehow going to prevent Brexit or overturn their slender margin of victory, are not the worst thing that has happened to her. She has already suffered some of the worst things that can happen to anyone and she’s survived, which is why she wants to tell her story now.
For the first time, Gina reveals to YOU what happened when she was a student. As she was walking to the tube station in Mile End, East London, one night, she was ‘brutally attacked’ by a gang of men. She crawled into a black cab, and the cabbie offered to take her to a police station or hospital but she said no. I asked her why she didn’t go to the authorities for help. ‘I went into shock. It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened. I couldn’t process it. I hid in my bedroom for weeks; I couldn’t even think about leaving the room, which was safe. I felt really lonely.’ In her book, she says after the attack she felt ‘dirty, violated and in shock’. Using the word ‘violated’ means I have to ask, ‘Were you raped, Gina?’ Her eyes meet mine and she sighs and nods. ‘And one of them was a student?’
‘They were all students,’ she answers. ‘Why do you think it happened? Were they drunk? Was it a racist attack?’ ‘No, no, no, it was deliberate,’ she says. ‘It was racist, but not in the way you think – because they weren’t white.’ We are silent for a moment as I think what it must be like to be a young woman, thousands of miles away from family, to be raped and to suffer in silence, alone.
Gina left the University of East London without a degree. Her tutor had found out about her trauma and the university offered her a degree as she was on track for a 2.1, but she declined (she notes wryly that 30 years to the month when she should have been receiving her law degree, the same university awarded her an honorary doctorate of law). She only told her mother about the assault, who asked her not to tell her father. Gina’s father, Doodnauth Singh, was Guyana’s attorney general before starting a political party. He has been a formative influence on his daughter’s fearless career. She is endlessly proud of him, telling me about landmark cases he had fought across the West Indies.
After she left university, her parents wanted her back, but by then she’d been in the UK for nearly a decade, and wanted to stay. ‘The thought of leaving Britain terrified me. I’m British. It was my home.’ Now her father is dead, she feels more comfortable speaking about the rape in the hope that others will gain strength from it, which is the message and purpose of the book: to empower young women who feel hopeless, fragile, unable to cope. Whatever happens, Gina says, you can dare to dream and face your weakness. It’s all about ‘tough softness’. You can fall, you can fail, but afterwards you can stand tall and tell your story. Which is what she has done.
Eventually Gina gathered herself together. She moved to the country with her first husband, Adrian, and they set up a business providing photographic services to estate agents to surf the wave of the property boom of the mid-80s. She became pregnant, and was working late one night in 1988 when her waters broke. By the time she reached Southmead Hospital, Bristol, the contractions were coming every few minutes and she was doubled up in pain. But there were no midwives available to deliver the baby, so instead she was given drugs to halt the contractions. Late in the labour, she had an epidural, which bruised her spine. After many long and exhausting hours, Lucy-Ann was born. ‘The experience had been traumatic, but when I got home with Lucy-Ann I forgot about it. I had an angel baby.’
When Lucy-Ann was about nine months old, though, Gina noticed things weren’t quite right. By the age of one, when other babies were beginning to crawl and walk, she would just sit and smile. ‘All the usual milestones passed without my daughter reaching them,’ Gina says. Healthcare professionals fobbed her off until Lucy-Ann was two, when, hysterical, she finally took her to a private team of paediatricians. They were categorical. Her daughter had suffered a trauma at birth and was badly brain damaged. They advised her to put Lucy-Ann in a home. ‘I could have sued, but I knew I’d need all my reserves of energy to look after my daughter,’ she says. It was this pivotal moment – when she decided she would fight for Lucy-Ann tooth and nail, every inch of the way – that was the making of Gina. ‘Lucy-Ann awoke the lioness in me,’ she says. ‘I knew I had to be a fighter for her.’
Her marriage to Adrian broke down under the strain. ‘Fighting for her had taken over my life,’ she says. ‘I had no time to be a wife.’ They divorced in the early 1990s. She did various jobs, from modelling to leafleting to waitressing at Pizza Express while studying for a marketing degree, and looking after Lucy-Ann. She did this for many years, on her own, and then she met Jon Maguire. She moved near Bradford on Avon, where Jon (an Irishman with ‘twinkly charm’ and three children of his own) had a house. She enjoyed village life even though the ‘meet-the-neighbours’ drinks turned out to be a wife-swapping key party and people asked her things such as, ‘Do you need to use a special shampoo for your hair?’
A few years later, she married Jon, and then it all went dark. He beat her. He drank. She tried to leave three times. He promised it would be different. It never was. ‘Then one day, it really was rock bottom. Jon and I were having terrible rows once again. I woke up one morning with a terrible gash and pain on my back but couldn’t remember what had happened the night before.’ She fled with Lucy-Ann.
Eventually her first husband Adrian gave them shelter in Tooting, South London, and she got back on her feet again. Then in 2010, she discovered Jon was standing for an anti immigration party called the English Democrats, but she says it had nothing to do with her pro-European stance or the colour of her skin. It did make her reflect though: ‘This was my former husband. Had I ever really known him?’
It is only when she talks about her third husband, Alan Miller, whom she met in 2003, that she starts smiling. ‘It took me a long time to trust a man again,’ she says. She did her best to deter Alan, telling him on their third date all the things that were difficult in her life and ‘what a rubbish partner I would be’, but all he said was, ‘Is that all you’ve got to put me off?’
In 2005 they married on a beach in Jamaica when she was heavily pregnant with their son Luca, now 13. They also have a daughter, Lana, ten, and live with Lucy-Ann, now 30 (Gina stoutly calls her ‘differently abled’), a happy settled family life only slightly constrained by the fact she is still a target. They have a house in Chelsea, a house in France (‘we fly EasyJet and often bump into Nigel Lawson, who lives there, and also Michael Gove’), but she laughs at the idea she sponges off anyone.
‘It’s a myth that I married three rich husbands and took money off all of them,’ she says. Gina co-founded investment and wealth management firm SCM Direct in 2009 and the True and Fair Campaign in 2012, calling for an end to financial misconduct in the investment and pension industries. She also set up the True and Fair Foundation and was named the UK’s most influential black person by Powerlist last year. ‘What I’ve achieved in my life means I don’t need anyone’s money,’ she says, dismissing as misogyny suggestions she lives off Alan.
When her memoir comes out next week, she expects a spike in the hate again, but I doubt that will happen. It’s a remarkable story of a remarkable woman, whose courage one can only admire, whatever your politics. She doesn’t ever regret fronting the campaign that brought her to worldwide attention, good and bad. ‘I have no regrets,’ she said, even though she says when she sees people approaching her carrying bottles of water, she panics that they are going to throw acid in her face. ‘Of course it was going to be me. I’m quite a fatalistic person.’
Her desire is for young women to read her book and find the strength in themselves that she found in her darkest hours to get up, again and again. ‘I believe in you, I believe in us,’ she says. ‘I believe we can all rise.’
‘AT SCHOOL I WAS DIFFERENT, AN OUTSIDER’
An exclusive extract from Gina’s memoir
When I had just turned 11, my parents sent me to board at Moira House, an all-girls school in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
At school, I looked different from everyone else – I dressed differently and I spoke differently. My parents were strict, and in Guyana I’d attended a very strict convent and was taught English with a precision that came from terrifying nuns. Even though I was so excited to be in England, I felt very much like the outsider.
My mother knew that I might get homesick, so she packed me off with her perfume, Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, to remind me of her. The bottle was oval, with curved lines shaped into the glass, and the stopper was a white dove with its wings spread outwards. Every time I undid the stopper and inhaled the scent of bergamot and gardenia, I was transported in a swirl of memories back to my home.
My mother’s perfume got me through the first weeks of my first term in this new and unfamiliar place. I was slow to make friends, with some girls ostracising me. They couldn’t always understand my odd accent, and my awkward beanpole frame and ridiculously long black hair made me stand out more. I retreated into myself and tried not to draw attention to anything I was doing. I just got on with my work, and at nights I’d escape to the relative safety of my dormitory bed and whichever book I was reading.
But one weekend things came to a head. A group of girls ganged together and, when I was out of the dormitory, stole the bottle of perfume and decided it would be funny to tip it down the basin. They then refilled it with water. When, later that night, I opened the bottle to dab it on my pillow, I knew instantly something was wrong. The perfume didn’t smell like my mother any more. Then the realisation dawned. I could feel tears pricking against my eyes. The other girls were looking at me, but I knew that if I showed them I was upset they would have won.
As calmly as I could, I put the bottle back on the chest of drawers and walked to the toilets. I locked the door of the cubicle and cried into a towel. I got all the tears out of my system, then I dried my eyes, splashed my face with water and walked back into the dormitory. When they saw I wasn’t going to break down in front of them, the girls lost interest.
There was one girl who I knew was the ringleader. I remembered something else my mother had packed into my suitcase: it was a necklace with a Virgin Mary pendant. The next morning I gave it to the ringleader, saying, ‘This is so we can be friends.’ The girl seemed nonplussed.
She didn’t speak to me for a couple of days, but I sensed a slight thawing in the atmosphere. Then she started suggesting things. She’d invite me to join in a game or ask me to be part of her hockey team, and by the end of that week we were friends. Her parents were diplomats whom she hardly ever saw, and who rarely sent her letters or presents. The necklace became one of her most treasured possessions.
This episode taught me an important lesson: that bullies can be complex, that they may be acting from a place of weakness, not strength. As soon as I reached out to the girl who was bullying me, her defences crumbled. I didn’t counter anger with anger. Nor did I show I was upset. I tried to disarm her with kindness, so that we could engage with each other. I never had a problem with bullies at school again.
Gina’s memoir Rise: Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall & Leading the Way will be published by Canongate on Thursday, price £16.99* To order a copy for £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until 9 September, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; P&P is free on orders over £15.