Dame Vivienne Westwood on Theresa May, Julian Assange and Telling Off The Queen of Sweden

By Taryana Odayar, Executive Editor. 

Renowned fashion designer and ardent political activist Dame Vivienne Westwood delivered two public lectures at the LSE on Monday the 26th and Wednesday the 28th of September 2016, on ‘The Rotten Financial System (Rot $) is the Enemy. We Are the Opposition’, to commemorate the LSE Resist Festival of Ideas and Actions; a 3-day series of public discussions, film screenings, workshops, debates and exhibitions hosted by LSE’s Department of Sociology. Both lectures were chaired by the Head of the Sociology Department Nigel Dodd, and on Wednesday Dame Westwood and Professor Dodd were joined by former Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation and co-founder of the New Weather Institute Andrew Simms, as well as the Executive Director of the Land Research Trust (London) Fred Harrison. I had the opportunity to interview Dame Westwood following Wednesday’s discussion.  
(Q) I recall that on Monday you were wearing a T-shirt with a slogan – ‘Theresa Talk Vivienne.’ Could you just talk about why you wore that T-shirt and what you’re trying to tell Theresa May?I think its a very good idea to group what I’m trying to do around the focus of ‘this is what we want to tell Theresa May’ and prepare something, because I’ve got lots of talks to do, and its to do with Intellectuals Unite. And what we need to talk to her about is our enemy the rotten financial system, and we need a green economy because we’re all in danger of mass extinction, which she is ignoring. And so, if we do that, its going to build all this support. You’ve always got to work through government, but they don’t listen, no matter how many people are there with the experiences, they just don’t listen, they do what they want. So what can we do, except to try and build up absolutely massive support, but with a real focus so we know what the enemy is, we know what we need to tell her.

At the LSE today, what I did also was to try and involve the LSE in the idea that we have to provide for government a plan of how to transfer to a green economy. And if we do that, its an incredible, solid thing; you’ll get that in the press eventually, they’ll have to start reporting it somehow. I want also to tell Jeremy Corbyn this is what we’re doing. We’re sending all our petitions to Theresa May at the moment, but this is what they’re all about and these are some examples of the kind of thing people have been saying, and we want you to know that there is this incredible, massive support for converting to a green economy, because a green economy is all that will save us.

Our enemy is the rotten financial system that causes climate change, causes poverty. Our way out of this into richness and life is through the green economy. We’ve got  Intellectuals Unite – its ‘IOU’ – and it means get a life – I owe you a life, I owe my children a life, I owe future generations a life, but I also owe myself a life, and I’m not going to be this consumer anymore, I’m going to try and think ‘what would make a better world, what can I do to try and help’.

One thing I didn’t mention today is that you have to start doing things like save a plastic bag. The wonderful thing would be if people stopped eating meat, but that’s a bit too difficult to just come out with. I don’t eat meat; its great not to eat meat. But people eat far too much. You can see even in the last 10 years, we’ve got 7 billion people but half of them in the rich part of the world are twice as fat as they were – its like they’re even heavier on the ground – its mad! So you might think, what’s this got to do with eating meat? I believe its got everything to do with eating meat. It stops craving if you have a vegetable diet, and its so good for the world, its good for you. And it’s the second biggest polluter in the world; animal livestock farming.

If you get involved and just do one or two things, you will just keep on going. It makes you responsible, it makes you always think, ‘I should turn the tap off, I should turn the lights off.’ All these small things, it means that you follow what’s being said and done and you can talk to people. You have a view of the world you can tell them about so that they also can try and personally do something. For you to do that, the most important thing is that it gives you this responsibility to yourself and to everything, to try and make everything better and not just consume without thinking.

Because that’s the problem. The rotten financial system is all about, ‘we want everybody to consume more of this crap.’ The cheaper things are, the more they’re subsidised so that business can make a profit, the more they’re packaged the more horrible things they’ve got in them so we’re all dying of this bacteria that we can’t do anything about.

You’ve really got to understand that 1 million people control 7 billion people. There is no opposition. We have to be an opposition, and we have to do it through the rotten financial system.The rotten financial system is our enemy, and we’re targeting Theresa May as a kind of trick, as a kind of device, in order to build that opposition. And maybe she will have to do something, and if she doesn’t, then maybe somebody else will. And I’m concentrating just on this country, because if it happens here it’s the most important place it could happen to, our incredible reputation being the best friend of America. And its small enough, so if you can do something here, it would make shock waves throughout the world. But hopefully, I’m not the only person who knows that, and hopefully, other people will try and do things but you’ve got to do something as well. Just think about it, just save a plastic bag, anything.

(Q) Are there any particular politicians who would be able to take this forward and implement plans for a green economy? 

If Caroline Lucas had the job of Theresa May, it would be completely different. We would get what we’re talking about, she would just start to do that.

(Q) If you could design T-shirts with slogans for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, what would the slogans read?

Well, I don’t know, but I would not be able to vote for either of them if I were in America, because they’re both locked into this system – the rotten financial system – and people who are locked into it are no better than another. So for example, in this country, if either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn at the next election would say we are going to do certain things that have a green policy, I would vote for that. But otherwise I would vote for the green party. It’s the only non-wasted vote. And if I were in America I would have to try and find somebody with a green party and I would vote, but I don’t believe in voting for the least bad option; tactical voting. I think you’ve got to vote for someone you believe in.

(Q) You famously drove up to David Cameron’s house in a white army tank, and also cut off all your hair to promote climate change issues. Are there any particular issues you feel strongly about right now, and have you got any stunts planned?

I think its important to say everything is connected. Human rights are connected, the government today, the banks. The 1 million people who control us have laws to suit themselves, they are anti-people. They are anti-people in everything they do and they are anti-people in law as well. They use the law for their own purpose. So you’ve got Bradley Manning in jail for revealing American war crimes. They don’t want their war crimes revealed. And war is completely connected with it. War is fought for land and cheap labour and power of course. And its all connected to the rotten financial system.

So probably one of the first things I would do here – and we did a T-shirt for them anyway and somebody had a badge on of them – is the junior doctors. I think all these people here, if they want to do anything, next time there’s some kind of protest for the junior doctors we should try to join them. Its only going to be a small amount of people because we haven’t got very far yet with Intellectuals Unite, but it would be very wonderful because when these junior doctors do protest, they’re so busy, so knackered, that not many of them manage to go on these demonstrations. And I can’t believe how some of them do. They’re wonderful people so I think we should just go with realistic things and human things as well. So anytime you can help anybody in any way, don’t forget that its all connected, its all part of the rotten financial system. And that 1 million people control 7 billion. Its completely to do with that.

(Q) You mentioned Bradley Manning, and during the talk today you also mentioned that you’re good friends with Julian Assange. Do you visit Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy?

Usually about once a month. That man has not seen the sun for about five or six years. Total example of the 1 million controlling and pretending that they know best for people. The United Nations declared Julian innocent because no crime was ever committed, and there was an allegation that the Swedish government won’t drop these appeals. I spoke to the Queen of Sweden and told her off about it.

(Q) How did the Queen of Sweden take it?

Well it was at a dinner and she asked the host there, “who was that woman who attacked me” and he told her, “oh she’s this famous fashion designer” and whatever, and she hadn’t heard of Julian Assange. And he’s busy and I’m just waiting for him to send me her address because I’ll write to her properly about it. But when I met her, they said “this is the Queen of Sweden,” and I said, “I’m no friend of Sweden! What you’ve done to Julian Assange is shocking. Your country should be ashamed of it!” All you need to say about Julian is that he is America’s most wanted man, and that’s why he’s there in the embassy in Britain. They say they’ll arrest him if he’s ill or steps outside that door, and send him to Sweden so that Sweden can send him to America. Its very simple.

(Q) When you meet Julian, what do you usually talk about? Are you collaborating with him on anything?

Well sometimes we try and I’ve got one idea. Something might happen. He’s the most famous victim of human rights abuse in this country. He has not been able to step outside and get sunlight on his body for the last 5 years coming up now. And he’s done nothing wrong at all. There’s no crime ever been written down about him or anything, except the police made up an allegation which has got nothing to do with whatever happened.

(Q) Your talk today was based on the theme of resistance, as was your talk on Monday. And in the late 70s Mr McLaren and yourself shaped the punk rock movement in fashion, which in many ways was an artistic vehicle of resistance. Since then, you’ve been a vocal resister of capitalism and consumerism. But since the fashion industry is one of the most hyper-capitalist and consumerist industries in the world, do you ever feel that your personal values sometimes clash with your job?

My fashion isn’t anything to do with what you’ve mentioned. I make the best things I can make, and my criterion has always been ‘I have to like it.’ I’m never trying to flog something. If people don’t want it then I just stop, and I try to offer them a choice and I say, ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last.’ Its very labour-intensive with highly skilled work and I’m trying to draw in some of the expansion – its expanded too much. And that means you lose control and things go through when you haven’t seen them. So I’m trying to do this in order that it is a perfect model of a company for the future. And this is one reason I have stopped using the word ‘capitalist’, because capitalism has got within it the seed of what is happening. Its got the seed that big fish eat little fish and then get the monopolies. And they are about anything to make a profit, and I’m not about that.

I don’t consider myself a capitalist, except technically you have to make a certain profit in order to continue, and then you use your capital to do something. I absolutely agree with somebody called Carnegie. He built all the libraries in England. He was a steel magnate in the 19th century. He came from Scotland originally and he made all his fortune at Lake Michigan where all the best steel was and he just happened to get it all. But he said its a sin to die rich, and he spent the last 25 years with his mother going around deciding how to give his money away. I think that was brilliant. He was a capitalist, but that’s what he did with his money.

(Q) Would you ever do something similar?

Well I already do give my money away to stuff, where I think its going to do something very important. And of course I’m working with a charity called Cool Earth, and what attracted us to that is that their method is something that only requires a hundred million pounds to save the whole of the equatorial forest, because they work with the indigenous people. They don’t buy them out, they just spend with the indigenous people the same amount of money they would get from the loggers by helping them with schools, helping them sell their coffee or their little beaded bracelets or whatever. So that they slightly enter the world economy now, and they’ve got schools and transport and can support themselves.

These people have had amazing histories just like we’ve had. They’re not just people who happen to live in the jungle, they love their land. They’ve got a culture that they want to protect. So what happens is you ring-fence the forest so the loggers can’t get in, and the first thing that Cool Earth does is to work on their entitlement – it is their land and the documents are put in a safe place in Lima or Peru or wherever.

One thing you could ask Theresa May is, ‘can’t you just dig into your pocket and just give a hundred million pounds?’ And we could give you a certificate saying, ‘I saved the world.’ Because if you don’t save the rainforest, forget it. So that’s where I started and I still work with them and I must design a couple of T-shirts for them – we’ve already got a couple – but so that they can keep on raising money. I’ve got a very good idea for them and I hope to raise this hundred million pounds. But what I was saying is if I had that hundred million pounds myself I would give it immediately, but I don’t have it.

(Q) You’ve spoken a lot about culture in the past and even just now. What do you think about the political culture in Britain? Do you think Britain is going backwards or forwards?

Well I’m glad you mentioned culture because that’s how I started this activism. Punk was active, ‘follow us because the world is being totally mismanaged and we don’t accept what the older generation is doing’, and ‘we kids want anarchy because we’re not going to do what we’re told by these terrible people.’ So that’s what punk was about. And I left it because I thought you need culture, and that’s when I did the Pirate collection. Forget about all this jumping and spitting – because I wanted the look of an urban guerrilla which is what we did – and that’s when I had the Pirate idea with Malcolm (McLaren).

So when I started this thing about the environment, before that, I started to do something about culture. I thought, what would I do today at this little shop, ‘Worlds End’, where we did the Pirate collection and all these things, and I thought what would I tell young kids today, and it is that we’ve got consumption and we don’t have culture. And I said the world suffers from three evils, which I remember reading in an essay by Aldous Huxley. One is nationalist ideology, which is taking the place of religion. The other one is organised lying, and the other one is nonstop distraction. And Huxley said the greatest evil is nonstop distraction.

And I don’t know if there are any people I would call artists today. They are people just supplying a demand and think they’re successful. It’s a bit of a bubble isn’t it? People invest in it but it doesn’t have any real value and its just something they can pass on. I don’t think we’ve got any art and I don’t think we’ve got any culture and we are becoming alienated because of it. You get out what you put in, that’s what culture’s about. And consumption is about just sucking up any old rubbish.

I don’t think we’ve got much culture today, no. The hippies politicised my generation, and we were trying to politicise with punk, and then we got the 80s where these kids didn’t have a clue about politics and nobody was telling them anything. And soon after that is when I started to do something, and my first campaign and my first website was all about propaganda and it was called ‘Active Resistance’ to propaganda. So what I did was a little manifesto about a journey to find art, and there were 20 different characters including Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland who were all trying to find art, but who couldn’t find it very well. But we talked about what art really was during the process.

I went to 18 different universities with this. I read the part of ‘Active Resistance’ and all the other 20 (people) who were on the platform read the other parts. And the Royal Shakespeare company asked if they could do it with me and they did it in the theatre up in North London. So that was my first campaign to invest in culture. And if we did have culture, we would not have climate change. It would be ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last’, invest in things instead of sucking things up. We wouldn’t be destroying the earth. One very, very terrible thing is we don’t respect animals and cruelty to animals, and if we could address that also, then we wouldn’t have climate change. We would not be behaving like we are.


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