Who on Earth do you think you are, Niall Paterson?
Was I the only person to have fallen out of their chair on Sunday when Niall Paterson, filling in for Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky TV on 14th July, asked Gina Miller:
“Who on Earth do you think you are? Writing a letter like that to the man who will most likely be the next Prime Minister.”?
Or was there a collective nationwide thud of bodies crashing to the floor followed by a spike in visits to A&E departments as thousands of SKY TV viewers urgently sought treatment, not only for contusions and broken bones but also for shock caused by the disbelief that the exercise of one’s civil and legal rights in a democracy could be turned on its head in such darkly fascist terms and at such lightning speed to boot?
The question was posed in response to Ms Miller’s legal team launching a legal challenge to the threat, now thankfully nixed in Parliament, from the PM-in-waiting to prorogue parliament — i.e. temporarily suspend parliament to bypass it in the run-up to Brexit. With Farage openly advocating a root-and-branch purge of the entire civil service of any Remain sympathisers who he claims are obstructing Brexit and Boris Johnson casually mooting the shut-down of parliament in order to smooth the way for an EU exit at all costs by 31 October, anyone with a democratic bone in their body can’t help but feel some gratitude to Ms Miller for having the courage to face down the anti-democratic Farage-ERG-Johnson nexus through the mere exercising of her civic and democratic legal rights.
Gina Miller is no newcomer to this perversely aggressive resistance to thoughtful, peaceful and entirely legal dissenters. That’s because she is gradually acquiring veteran status as a challenger of a government that not only seems incapable of halting the lurch towards a no-deal Brexit, but could soon become the primary driver of this potentially catastrophic event. Why did she not fall out of her chair like I did? Perhaps Ms Miller is now so accustomed to abuse since she had the temerity in 2016 to successfully challenge, in the Supreme Court, the government’s right to invoke Article 50 without reference to Parliament. Or perhaps she had simply fastened herself to the chair on which she was sitting with an inconspicuous seatbelt, thus ruling out the default option of falling to the floor. And so she calmly answered the question, without missing a beat, by reminding Paterson of basic concepts regarding civic democratic rights:
“Each of us in a democracy, each of us have the right as a citizen to exercise our legitimate questions of the courts. And that’s what I did the first time.”
Undeterred by this self-evident truth and before Ms Miller could finish answering, Paterson interjected in order to repeat the idea that Ms Miller had acquired ideas far above her station by interfering in matters of state involving the Queen and a holder of high office:
“It’s quite something to write a letter to a former Foreign Secretary and tell him ‘if you’re going to become Prime Minister, advise our client a week in advance before you go see the Queen’.”
Ms Miller calmly collected herself and re-iterated her stance, won over centuries of often bloody conflict between citizen and state, on how a democracy works and the application of the rule of law to all in the land regardless of office:
“Well, paying lip service to parliamentary democracy is one thing, but you actually have to actively defend it. And that’s what this case and my legal team and I would be doing, is actively defending parliamentary sovereignty because it is the cornerstone of our constitution. And to abuse that, nobody is above the law. You can be Prime Minister, whatever your position, we would argue, I would argue, that no one is above the law.”
From a pro-democracy (never mind Remain) perspective, Ms Miller is a hero who has rightfully earned her place as a sane voice in an otherwise epic comedy of errors known as Brexit. But, as diplomatically calm and technically correct as her answer was, it has to be said that it was inadequate in one respect — it failed to reflect back to the interviewer the sheer preposterousness of the question. Ms Miller is blameless in this for a number of reasons, not least of which is that who of us would not have been reduced to a quivering mass of jelly when a seemingly sane interviewer in a seemingly sane setting, morphs into an insane Jack Nicholas in The Shining without so much as clearing his throat to give fair warning of a change in pace?
This was unquestionably yet another moment of insanity in the never-ending nightmarish phantasmagoria that is Brexit. Interviewers do not bring credit to themselves by exercising their spurious power to utter any old unfiltered garbage that comes to mind on the pretext of challenging the interviewee. Playing devil’s advocate is all part of the game but there has to be some context and the questions have to make basic sense within the framework of the interview subject. I am not suggesting placing filters on questions to narrow the parameters of debate, which is an art so well mastered in the West that the media is not conscious of its skill. I am merely suggesting that it might be odd to ask, in all sincerity, a Premier League striker why he buries the ball in the back of the opponent’s net when presented with an open goal. Imagine the bewilderment with which such a question would be met. When the questions enter this twilight zone, there’s probably a sub-text that requires unpicking. So let’s peel off the multi-layered scab of this hideous question.
The fundamental premise of the question is an insult to and an assault on democracy itself. It is a given that in a smoothly functioning dictatorship, Ms Miller would not have made it to the studios to enjoy the privilege of being asked the question. She would already have been locked up, or worse. The corollary of this is that in a democracy, this question shouldn’t even be at the starting block unless the democracy is becoming a dictatorship. Perhaps we should soberly reflect on the possibility that, at some point in the future beyond 31 October, we may look back on this interview and congratulate Paterson on his prescience.
The question is also an assault on Ms Miller’s presumed power of agency to exercise her civic and legal rights to hold her government to account. By asking Ms Miller who she thinks she is to be doing this, Paterson is very directly raising the question of who in a democracy has the right to challenge those at the top. After all, if our economic and social system teaches us anything, it is that all citizens are equal but some are more equal than others. Being a female of colour, Ms Miller straddles two groups that are not yet dining at the top table in the social and economic equality stakes. Given that Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General, is treated with relative deference by the media on his outspoken opposition to prorogation and his plans to foil it, it’s valid to ask whether one, if not both, of the minority characteristics possessed by Ms Miller has unconsciously or consciously troubled Mr Paterson to the point where he feels she is launching a cruise missile at the hallowed machinery of state by simply challenging the legality of what Dominic Grieve rightly says would be “the end of parliamentary democracy”in the UK.
It should be noted that Paterson prefixed his question with the interviewer’s well-worn but flimsy ‘public interest’ fig leaf: “there will be people watching this this morning [thinking]…”. When a reasonable question is asked, the interview need not hide behind this fig leaf. And an unreasonable question may indeed be rattling around in the minds of “people watching this morning”. But for all the reasons I have argued, they would be representing anti-democratic forces in society and so their shared inclination with Paterson does not lend the question any further validity unless the constant invocation of our proud and fine democracy has all along been a fig leaf for the real fascist forces running our society. Paterson is the owner and author of this question and its unpicking serves to shine a light into the darkened corners of his mind.
So absurd and disturbing is the question that I found myself desperately searching for an analogy to expose its inherent bankruptcy. And, to represent the fate of all democrats in the face of Paterson’s onslaught, all I could come up with was an imaginary encounter between Niall Paterson and a homeless person at the check-out in a branch of Waitrose:
Paterson: “Who do you think you are coming into my Waitrose branch to buy that sandwich?”
Homeless person: “I do sincerely beg your pardon, Sir, but I believe it has been well established for several thousand millenia that human beings require nourishment to sustain life. I would gladly have gone to my local soup kitchen had it not closed yesterday for lack of support so I have little choice but to seek a bargain in this shop using the meagre donations from kind passers-by. The staff of the shop have assured me that the coins I have are legal tender and they will transact with anyone who wishes to use it to buy their produce. Humbly begging your pardon once again, Sir.”