Not since Marmite’s eponymous advertising campaign, or perhaps the ongoing scone-related ‘jam or cream first’ debate, has something more cleanly divided a nation than Brexit. But whether you’re part of the 52 or the 48 per cent, chances are you’ve heard of Gina Miller – if not by name, then definitely by deed.
Although Miller hit the headlines in 2016 when she took Theresa May’s government to court over its ability to trigger the UK’s departure from the EU without consulting parliament, and again in 2019 when she successfully challenged Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament – stirring up a hornets’ nest of online abuse from Brexit supporters in the process – she has actually been a campaigner and activist for three decades. Away from battles over Europe, British Guiana-born Miller is a successful businesswoman, founded the True and Fair Campaign with husband Alan Miller to call for more ethical behaviour in financial services, and campaigned for more transparency in charity spending.
Ahead of her appearance at this year’s virtual CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, Miller spoke to People Management about the importance of resilience and standing up for what you think is right.
Where does your desire to call out injustice stem from?
I’ve always had the curiosity to want to know why things are the way they are – not just understanding the divides in society, which were pretty stark growing up in British Guiana [Miller was sent to school in the UK at age 10]. My father was not just a lawyer, he was incredibly passionate about justice, and I think he saw a lot of himself in me. Our relationship wasn’t just built on love, it was built on his principles.
How did you deal with the abuse and threats towards you and your family because of your campaigns?
Taking on the sectors I took on was not easy for a woman of colour. I remember being told that my nickname in the City was the ‘black widow spider’. There’s everything wrong with that. But I got more abuse for my campaigning in the charity sector than I did in the City – the level of attacks was extraordinary.
Because of the reaction to those campaigns, I thought I was prepared for the onslaught following my constitutional cases. I’m never naive, and I knew things would be bad after the referendum, but I never expected what I got. I was told that, as a woman of colour, it wasn’t my place to speak up. I could deal with comments to me, but I found it incredibly difficult to deal with comments about my children – to read that they would be taken because they were half Jewish, half ethnic minority. Some days I went home and broke down in tears. We ended up being looked after by full security for three years. But I draw my strength from the idea that these voices are being allowed to become more centre stage in our society, and I don’t want my children growing up in that world.
What does resilience look like to you, and can it be taught?
Resilience can absolutely be taught. But I have an issue with being told that as a woman I should be ‘strong’. When we become strong, we lose the things that make us truly resilient, like being soft and flexible. The idea of shutting out certain things is actually a pitfall. Plus a room full of people being taught resilience will all take different things from it – to push everybody in the same direction can create false pressures.
Why is it important for organisations to be transparent and ethical, and has Covid changed this?
There’s a huge risk to not operating fairly. Leaders who put their heads in the sand when the sand is shifting so significantly are probably going to wake up and realise their businesses are failing. Covid is going to be a double-edged sword. I’m hopeful that the idea of being a responsible business has accelerated, and people are going to expect firms to do more than just make profits. But I’m worried that, in the name of surviving post Covid, we could see an undoing of how far we’ve come in equality and rights for different groups.
What can attendees at the CIPD conference expect to take away from your appearance?
I hope they take away the fact that every single one of them has the responsibility to influence what happens next. If we really do want to change, it’s going to be a collective effort.