Image credit: Marcel Antonisse via a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 license

Trainspotting and the cultural politics of the 90s

This article begins where any review of Trainspotting should – not with Danny Boyle or Irvine Welsh, but Margaret Thatcher. Who knows if the Iron Lady ever sat down to watch this 1996 cult classic? Either way, I doubt if she would have liked it. The story of Edinburgh heroin addicts would not have appealed to her famously dull cultural tastes, and though Trainspotting does reference Thatcher, I doubt she was the target audience.

When describing his new job in London after quitting heroin, Renton says, ‘There was no such thing as society. Even if there was, I most certainly had nothing to do with it.’ In a 1987 interview with Woman’s Own, Thatcher agreed with this sentiment. When asked about the responsibility of society to dispossessed people, she declared, ‘they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’ Trainspotting, then, is not just a film on topics such as addiction and the rejection of consumerism; it is also a not-so-subtle discussion of what it meant to be British in the post-Thatcher world.

In his book on the 1990s, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, historian Alwyn Tyrner sees 90s culture and politics as an attempt to answer this question; to prove once and for all there was such a thing as society that we can all proudly be a part of. Although Thatcher won the economic argument, seen in the Labour Party’s embrace of neoliberalism, the British people rejected this vision of ‘no such thing as society’. The solution offered in the 90s and 2000s was the embrace of multiculturalism and meritocracy as a vision of Britain for the new millennium. Trainspotting is a take on the gap between Thatcher and this new culture of the 1990s, confronting the social void left by 11 years of her government.

In the opening of the film we see Renton and Spud running from the scene of a recent crime to the sound of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”, and in this sequence he lists all the parts of modern society he hates. While this is a universal theme of young people rejecting the values of their elders, it had a particular resonance with people in the 90s. One of the effects of the Thatcher government was to eliminate the last dying remnants of post-war British, and especially working-class, culture. There is no doubt that this had been on the decline during the 60s and 70s; but it was the 80s that shattered the link between communities and the industries which supported them. Manufacturing as a share of GDP fell from 25.5% in 1980 to 11.4% in 2010 and the number of people employed in mining declined by over 200,000 between 1980 and 1994. This killed off not only the jobs of miners and other workers, but a way of life that was built around these industries. For the people affected by this, there did indeed seem to be no such thing as society.

The Thatcher years marked a turning point where unemployment, previously avoided by both Conservative and Labour governments, was accepted as an unavoidable reality. At the same time, the economic base of these communities was being destroyed with no plausible alternative in sight. For communities in Wales, Scotland and the north of England, Thatcher created a spiral of decline without government help to create new futures for people.

90s culture, in response to the social void left by the Thatcher years, offered two main themes: nostalgia and nihilism. The first can be seen in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, which offers a complex yet sympathetic portrayal of County Durham mining communities. It romanticises the sense of community and identity that was lost under Thatcher. Trainspotting is the other side of this coin, a more nihilistic response to the problems of 1990s Britain. Although Renton finds a solution to this through his final acceptance of the consumerist world he lives, much of the film is him numbing himself to this reality through heroin use and the group of destructive friends who support his habit.

There are other examples in the 90s of this desire to either believe in some form of community, or alternatively find a way to ignore the meaninglessness of it all. The comedian Mark Thomas, in a provocative documentary a year on from the death of Princess Diana, said, ‘I really wanted to go along to the funeral, because I wanted to be the one to start the Mexican wave.’ Perhaps the death of Diana was a case study of this, the vague desire to be part of something bigger than the ‘individual men and women’ that Thatcher promoted. Diana was certainly an iconic 90s figure but the overwhelming, even hysterical, reaction to her death points to a longing for a sense of community that had been lost to the God of profit.

Acid house rave culture is more like Trainspotting in that young people, rejecting the values of contemporary society, sought to insulate themselves temporarily from the future that had been thrust upon them through raves and drug use. However, they shared the recognition that what it meant to be British then lacked the value it once had, and new forms of meaning had to be found.

Is there something that we can learn from this today? In an era of the failure of modern capitalism to provide a compelling or even sustainable future, many of us find ourselves in the position of Renton, searching for a reason to play the game of life when the game is so clearly rigged. But then again, as Renton says: ‘Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?’