Vivienne Westwood: We must disrupt corrupt systems if we want to make change

The fashion icon sat down with The Big Issue to tackle the big questions facing the world in 2019

The Big Issue: You have been politically engaged for all of your career. Is there an urgency to your current campaign that wasn’t there before?

Vivienne Westwood: The problem is staring us in the face and it wasn’t staring us in the face earlier on. That’s why at the turn of the century Henry Ford could say “history is bunk”, the future is going to get better and better. But it started with industrialisation and things have actually gotten worse and worse, and now we face mass extinction.  

But we are making some progress, thanks to Greta [Thunberg] and the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. They’ve forced our government to declare a climate crisis and set targets.

Having said that, we can’t keep stalling. The targets used to be 2020, now they’re 2050. It’s always forever in the future. It’s never here! But we’re facing real problems right now, so we need to take action. 

What do you feel are the main things stopping us from taking quick, decisive action?

The tricky thing is that even if the government wanted to achieve a target of 2020 or 2030, they couldn’t until they stop the rotten systems that feed it. Imagine that climate change is a fire and they’ve agreed: ‘Yes, we’ll put water on that fire.’ The problem is, they’re throwing petrol on the flames at the same time. The petrol is the operation of the financial system that is making it worse. How can anything change in real terms if they don’t disrupt the corrupt systems in place?

What do you think should be done?

One of the things I’m calling for is a stop to the subsidy to fossil fuel. It’s £5.3tn a year. Plus, we need to stop the subsidy to industrial fishing because if you don’t, there’ll be no fish in the sea in 10 to 30 years. And you’ve got to start to implement the one-world tax – that will be a total structural and societal shift.

Start conversations and explode the narrative.

What exactly is the one-world tax?

It’s basically the old land tax. What we’re aiming for is that no one owns the land, it’s just administered and there’s only one kind of tax – we call it rent. You don’t own anything, you just pay rent. It’s about community – liberty, equality, fraternity. 

For example, if you asked the executive body to rent a piece of land to build a house they would give you permission to do that. Then if you decided to build another house and you wanted to rent this one, then you could do that. So the people who rented the house would pay you – the landlord – rent, and you the landlord would still have to pay that ground rent to the public purse. That’s the way the public purse funds the National Health Service and other national needs.

I think this is the future. Fred Harrison [author, economic commentator and corporate policy advisor] has been campaigning for it for years and together with a collective of NGOs, we’re planning a convention on the topic.

We’re in a time of political change, with a lot of activism swelling up from younger generations. How does it feel to see so many grassroots protests gather momentum?

It’s absolutely incredible and wonderful to see. You’ve got Greta’s guys – those people who protest with their parents every month. It’s really, really great. Also, Extinction Rebellion are doing a very efficient protest, it’s really good and it’s great that it’s not aggressive, it’s a passive thing. They’re really managing that so well. 

Considering you have all this going on and are so busy, we’re delighted that you have kindly designed a bespoke Big Issue T-shirt for us. Can you explain a bit about the design?

It’s simple, use your potential, become who you are. It’s a hopeful and empowering message that can help spread the word, start conversations and explode the narrative.

This establishment peddles a false narrative that serves their interests. What I’m trying to do is highlight the problems and analyse them. Only then is it possible to find solutions.

It comes from your series of playing cards. What led to you
creating these?

The playing cards are a strategy to save the world. How to save the world from climate change. Each one represents a different issue. 

Hearts are for culture, diamonds are for money, spades are for the motherfuckers who wreck the planet, clubs are for war. Julian Assange is the king of clubs for he’s the king of no war, a freedom fighter. He’s the one that’s challenging the idea that war is a great thing to do, that war gives us jobs. This is a narrative we currently don’t even question! 


Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

At the minute, we’re ruled by the establishment – the politicians and the press. Included in this one per cent are investors and rich people who make money out of damaging the world – I call it the rotten financial system. Finance and politics are the same thing. Whoever controls the economy controls the politics and whoever controls the politics controls the economy. It’s always been like that.

This establishment peddles a false narrative that serves their interests. What I’m trying to do is highlight the problems and analyse them. Only then is it possible to find solutions.

What are the pressing issues for you at the moment? 

They’re all on the playing cards. Definitely Julian Assange. He is on my mind at the moment. I feel an urgency of having to do something about his situation, so I’m trying to think about how to deal with that. He’s been a friend of mine and I saw him on a regular basis for years, usually once a month in the embassy.

He is an example of the problem. The tiny establishment control the narrative and his character has been assassinated in the press for years. The smear that’s gone on has been awful. It’s not based on anything to do with the truth. It’s just based on allegations of allegations.

You get out what you put in, so do good things, educate yourself on what’s really happening and make informed choices!

Of course, the main overarching message is to save the world from climate change. To do this, we need to take back control of the narrative. The ruling elite are in a position where they control everything and by protesting and analysing the problems and developing a manifesto for change, we can unpick the one per cent and make real changes.

Do you have some parting words of wisdom for our readers?

You get out what you put in, so do good things, educate yourself on what’s really happening and make informed choices! If enough of us realise we think the same, and want to change the world for the better, we could form an opposition strong enough to sway the government now, couldn’t we?

Vivienne Westwood has collaborated with The Big Issue to create a very special limited-edition T-shirt, retailing for £120 with all proceeds going to The Big Issue. It is available from Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End store today. 

Illustration: Helen Green