REVIEW: Vivienne Westwood in conversation with Caroline Lucas

A conversation is an overstatement. A ramble from Vivienne Westwood with Lucas’ intelligent thoughts and questions would be more accurate.

I only heard about this talk about three days before when my wife and I saw a poster stashed next to the Mash Tun toilets of all places. This surprised me; surely the “queen of punk”, one of the defining designers of our generation, having a conversation with our local MP at the Brighton Dome should be advertised everywhere?

Unperturbed, we bought tickets excited by the prospect of hearing real environmental debate and solutions to problems that we will all face in the next decade or so. Presented by City Reads, the conversation was a talk to celebrate Vivienne Westwood’s new book “Get A Life” – a collection of diaries kept by Westwood since 2010. The “talk” was as varied as the blurb of the book and no less muddled:

“One week, you might find Vivienne up the Amazon, highlighting tribal communities' struggles to maintain the rainforest; another might see her visiting Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy, or driving up to David Cameron's house in the Cotswolds in a full-on tank. Then again, Vivienne might be hanging out with her friend Pamela Anderson, or in India for Naomi Campbell's birthday party, or watching Black Sabbath in Hyde Park with Sharon Osbourne.”


Upon entry we were welcomed with a print out on every seat explaining Westwood’s take on “The Rotten Financial System”. It briefly explains central banks and the role they take in causing climate change.

“The central banks control the world’s economy. They do this by creating debt. The central banks are private banks. The US Federal Bank is one, the Bank of England, another. They are organised by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Zurich.

These central banks print money. Today, they do this by pressing buttons. They create virtual money out of nothing.

This money is loaned to other banks, monopolies and governments. It has now become a debt.

The central banks prefer it if the loans are never paid because what they want is the interest. – [sic] which accumulates out of all proportion to reality.

This means they always have fantastic amounts of money to lend and they don’t have to print virtual money except in an emergency. It also means that central banks come to own everything – because they own the debt. How often have we heard of a poor country selling its assets and natural resources just to keep up with interest payments on the debt it has been forced to borrow?

The monopolies work this system for the central banks. They do the actual job of wrecking the planet and exploiting its people. They suck up small businesses.

Politicians serve the central banks and the monopolies. They promote Big Business and its speculators and investors – through tax cuts, deregulation and selling off national assets and through the war machine; they pay for it by squeezing the tax payer and reducing public services so that everyone is in debt (Austerity).”

Though roughly true, this hyperbole is devoid of nuance and actually can cause more harm than good, which is how I feel about Westwood’s talk as a whole: a lot of apparently well informed slogans that in reality cause more harm than good with inaccuracies.

These are just a few that I’ve picked out even with only a slightly more than average understanding of world politics.

-        A monopoly is a single company or business in charge of a commodity, and though we can agree that there are large companies that are in charge of commodities (Shell, Exxon etc.) I would say the very presence of a competitor makes the word “monopoly”, though emotive, essentially defunct in any serious debate.

-        “Politicians serve the central banks and the monopolies” – again, an interesting argument but one that should be expanded on or can just be dismissed as a platitude.

-        Her use of the word “Austerity” at the end is also unclear in its placement. The fact that everyone is in debt is not austerity, it is the specific policy of cutting public spending. Whether it is a genuine attempt to help the people or simply help those who are most rich is one that is can be debated though I tend to agree it’s implementation is exploitative. 

-        The point about countries selling assets is interesting, but people like Vivienne Westwood have actually made their name off the back of this through exploitative industries such as the Fashion industry, which, after oil, is the most damaging single industry to the environment in the world when you consider the human and environmental damage.

The theme of truisms continued into the talk itself. We heard 35-minute lecture by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and a 30-minute spell with Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, human rights activist and Brighton Pavilion MP, on the topic of the environment.

Westwood’s opening talk was meant to take 10 minutes quickly covering all facets of society. The longer it went on it started to feel more and more like a ramblings of an old woman looking desperately for meaning while sliding into irrelevance, unconcerned about the hypocrisy or message behind her words.

I have been a big fan of Westwood since I started to explore her contributions to punk and her anti-establishment ethic. It sculpted the cultural and visual language of the UK but, in her own words: “You have to do more than just jump around and look good” – whichm

This ecological work is to replace it and something that she can have a massive hand in, but the basic handling of facts is something that comes with the territory. For example, one of her main visual pieces was a graphic with the space that would be inhabitable on the Earth if there was just a four degree increase in temperature, the graphic (pictured) clearly says five.

“Oh, but five degrees just looks better,” comes the response.

People laugh but this is worrying. It should not be enough anymore to make blanket statements and expect them to remain unchallenged. What she is doing is stepping away from fashion - where a look and a colour can work for that season - and stepping into politics where facts and arguments should reign beyond emotion.

Of course this whole argument is undone by the terrifying rise of post-truth politics proved with the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit. This realisation actually proposes a whole contradictory argument. Is *cough* Dame *cough* Vivienne Westwood with her punk background and politics the perfect person to take the global climate change fight to politics and make people take it more seriously? [More interesting “Punk establishment” here:] Not, of course, by politicians and academics - people like Caroline Lucas can do that with actual facts and arguments – but by simply repeating these truisms so much that people start to believe it simply because of its repetition? Fighting fire with fire if you like?

(You can see the resistance is spreading when you consider American Scientific institutions have created their own alternative accounts spreading actual scientific fact to counter the madness of bills introduced by Trump:

Street Artist Shepard Fairey, among countless others, proved that a repeated irrelevant image can become an icon in popular culture, so why can’t something as powerful as climate change? These images can become vital – but she needs to balance this by inviting in actual academics and figures to provide the fact behind her imagery.

This is why I found Lucas’ limited involvement so frustrating. Lucas actually spoke about four times, when Westwood allowed her (not including when Lucas was asking a question), and each time she received a round of applause. From the mention of the Lucas Plan (not related to her), a tremendous initiative by workers within a weapons plant to make other peaceful products with their skills, to the more reasonable understanding that you need those outside and inside large institutions to make a change, she covered a lot in about two minutes net total of speaking.

Westwood has done so much good, and now more than ever we need new voices stepping up to take up the fight. She is in a tremendous position to invite these voices in, but my feeling is that her ego is in the way and will continue to stand in the way. Her name has drawn a massive audience, almost enough to sell out Brighton Dome for a book tour, but now she needs to step back and let these voices speak. Not just proclaim meaningless platitudes and talking over those that know more about the said subject than her.

Ultimately, her message, to save the environment, could come across as an insincere marketing ploy. Even if we only consider that every seat had a print out and she did printed editions of her book rather than just releasing it as a digital copy from her website.

Westwood is making it too easy for opponents to invalidate her argument. Something that for those like me that believe change is necessary, cannot allow to continue and must utilise the street credit and reputation created by those like Westwood to create an actual force for truth and fact.

Science with a bit of showmanship if you like.