Wrecking Ball: Conversing with Gina Miller by Maria del Pilar Kaladeen
In 2016, when Gina Miller challenged the government’s authority to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU, it catapulted her into the public eye, and resulted in a stream of misogynistic and racist abuse. In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 110, author Maria del Pilar Kaladeen weaves interview, personal experience, and historical research to explore Miller’s influence and work.
Increasingly I feel it’s far more powerful to be outside the system than within it, a wrecking ball not a ball in their game.
— Gina Miller, Rise
Yesterday an organisation for the Galician community in London sent me what must now be the last of many reminders about the upcoming 30 June 2021 deadline for European Union (EU) citizens to apply for settled status in the UK. It inevitably made me think of my mother, on whose behalf I had spent much of 2018 preoccupied with understanding the forthcoming changes that could potentially upend her life in England as a result of Brexit.
At one point, I went to a meeting in Ladbroke Grove, the cultural home of London’s Spanish community. It belonged, in particular, to the ‘Gallegos’ from my mother’s region in the north-west of the peninsula, who had made their home there from the 1950s onwards. Scattered throughout the room, among the newer migrants who had left Spain following the country’s economic decline in 2008, were women the same age as my mother. Their disbelief was totally comprehensible. Many had lived in England for close to six decades or more. And though it’s difficult to remember now, nobody expected the referendum ‘leave’ result.
At the end of the meeting, I had approached an elegantly dressed official from the embassy. He was both immaculately attired and mannered, in that way that only Spanish men destined for the diplomatic service are. I was surprised when he temporarily dropped his mask and gestured in quiet exasperation at the room: ‘At least your mother kept her documents, some of these older people, they threw them in the bin.’ He shook his head as if to ask me: who would do such a thing?
Although I don’t judge them as harshly, I know what he’s referring to: the old-style letters and passport stamps that showed indefinite leave to remain. Once Spain joined the EU in 1985 it would have, perhaps, made sense for Spaniards to feel these documents were superfluous. My mother, however, had always kept the green certificate of registration that she had received on arrival in Dover in 1960, and which had been regularly updated until she completed the four years’ residence that effectively granted her indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Three months before she married my father, a British citizen by virtue of his birth in the then-British colony of Guyana in 1938, her card was stamped to confirm that she was no longer subject to any of the restrictions set out in the Aliens Order of 1953.
Her last entry states the end of any restrictions to her residence in the UK. Like the women at the meeting, she could have applied for British nationality at any point from then on. She chose not to and told people in all seriousness that she loved her country so much that if England and Spain went to war she would go back and fight us. I used to find this fierce patriotism charming and funny. Imagine being so attached to a country you hadn’t lived in for decades? It wasn’t until I began to read about the twentieth-century history of Spain that I understood nationalism was not an option among her generation. ‘¡Arriba España!’ and the ideology of Francisco Franco’s (1892–1975) nationalist dictatorship had been embedded in every aspect of her life as a child.
Even those with documents like my mother’s felt insecure. Amongst EU citizens who had migrated to the UK during the same period, it seemed no two people had the same paperwork showing their status. Many who had chosen not to apply for citizenship now questioned their decision. Dual nationality, though not recognised in Spain, was permitted in the UK. When the Windrush scandal broke in 2017, it was the first time since the 1970s that my parents’ distinct worlds of colour-based racism and xenophobia collided. ‘Fucking foreigners!’ I remember a gang of white thugs shouting at them as they walked down the street talking to each other. In contrast to my father, and us, the only time my mother ever experienced discrimination was when she opened her mouth. ‘Are you a French frog, or a German sausage?’ I remember schoolboys asking her as she walked me home from school.
There were sparse comic moments during that period, but in particular I remember my husband, a Black British man, trying to reassure me about my mother. ‘Maria,’ he said, squeezing my arm with tenderness, ‘it will be fine, they’re not going to deport her — she’s white.’ I’m not so sure. My husband, the son of a white Scottish man and a Ghanaian woman didn’t grow up in England and didn’t live through some of these uglier years. I wonder how much his childhood at an international school in Malawi has shielded him from the petty small-island mentality that is an intrinsic part of British identity. I fear he doesn’t understand any of this until he receives a frantic call from his father panicking that he can’t remember where he put his wife’s British nationality certificate. The slow breaking of the Windrush scandal had set everyone ‘like us’ on edge.
But it seemed to reach beyond that. Writing this now I am reminded of the words of Charlotte Helen Bailey, a journalist whose grandfather was an Indian-Trinidadian Windrusher. Charlotte’s maternal grandmother, his wife, was a refugee from East Germany. As it had for me, Brexit had thrown up challenges for how she thought about her identity in relation to her heritage in spite of the fact that she looks white. ‘Maybe even I’m not British in the way that people want me to be?’ she asked herself in the atmosphere that followed the referendum.
In the worst of this appeared the articulate and indomitable Gina Miller. Frequently filmed standing outside courthouses flanked by her legal team, it appeared to me that the more crazed everything grew around her, the calmer she became. For those of us who wanted to remain in the EU, there was brief hope in the form of two court cases that she led in 2016 and 2019: the first to ask if the Government was legally able to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU and the next to prevent Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempts to prorogue Parliament. Her endeavours to achieve constitutional clarity were framed by an increasingly anarchic mob, improbably led by a former stockbroker, calling her efforts acts of treachery to ‘the will of the people’. The violent verbal abuse and threats Miller suffered frequently made me wonder what it cost her emotionally to appear as she did, floating above us all, apparently untouched by the shitstorm.
Maria del Pilar Kaladeen is an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. She is one of the editors of the new Journal for the Study of Indentureship and its Legacies. Her latest book, The Other Windrush (Pluto Press), charts the stories of descendants of Caribbean indenture who were also part of the Windrush Generation.
Cover photo via Maria del Pilar Kaladeen.
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110:
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. The issue testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories. You can purchase Wasafiri 110 here.
explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. The issue is testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories. You can purchase Wasafiri 110 here.