Yesterday, Conservative chancellor George Osborne gave a big speech in which he outlined his party’s vision for the years ahead. Austerity was the theme, with Osborne pledging to cut £3 billion a year from the welfare budget. It was interesting to note the glee with which the audience applauded Osborne when he said there would be less welfare spending – interesting, if not particularly surprising.
But the chancellor’s hymn to global capital reached its conclusion on an altogether weirder stylistic note – as his final call to arms, Osborne decided to either plagiarise or pay homage to the rhythm, cadence and wording of the most famous passage in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It’s not a literal piece of plagiarism, as when Rand Paul lifted the Wikipedia entry for the film Gattaca to paint a picture of a dark future in which eugenics is practiced, but it is a very obvious nod. Really, it’s not a nod; it’s a headbutt. I’m paraphrasing slightly but in Trainspotting, Renton’s monologue goes something like this:
"Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career... Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... Choose good health... Choose fixed-interest mortgage payments. Choose a starter home... Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you've spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life..."
In The 2014 Conservative Party Conference: Highlights to Cherish speech, Osborne ended like this:
“Choose jobs. Choose enterprise. Choose security. Choose prosperity. Choose investment. Choose fairness. Choose freedom. Choose David Cameron. Choose the Conservatives. Choose the future.”
I emailed Irvine Welsh to see what he thought of the chancellor referencing Trainspotting and got this in reply:
“He’s [Osborne] a fucking twat… I would rant about the prick, but have too much on re deadlines”.
He added, on Twitter: “Would rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare than that cunt Osborne quote them on choice.”
I called the Conservative Party for a response, but weirdly they didn't feel like commenting.
"Choose life" scene from the Trainspotting film
Osborne, then, becomes another in a long line of politicians who seemingly just don’t get it. He has taken a monologue that parodied consumerism and capitalism and turned it into an exhortation to follow him along that road. He’s taken a piece of satire and interpreted it at face value, like his dear leader David Cameron, who in 2008 told BBC Radio 4 one of his favourite songs was The Jam’s “The Eton Rifles”:
“I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs," Cameron said. To which Weller’s response was: "Which part of it didn't he get? It wasn't intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps."
The day the Tories stop getting hit like trains by cultural figures is a day we need to fear. No one wants to live in a world where William Hague is bringing trip hop back. There was surely something arch and intentional about Osborne’s piece of borrowing. Everyone’s seen Trainspotting, particularly guys who were in their twenties when it was released, even if they spent much of those twenties spadding around with the fisheries minister burning piles of dead cows. Renton’s monologue is brilliantly written, you can see why a speechwriter would want to borrow the rhythm of it, particularly as repetition works so well in a political context.
So is Osborne deliberately parodying the parody? Taking a piece of anti-Thatcherite writing and reclaiming it for the Thatcherites?
You can almost see him now, a Machiavellian smirk playing across his face as he digs back into his hedonistic past, taking an early literary inspiration, discarding its politics, putting it through the mincer and turning it into the final insult. “Choose David Cameron. Choose the Conservatives. Choose the future,” went his exhortation. It might all seem quite clever, were Osborne not likening a country he's running to a heroin addict trying to get off the junk.
More from the party conferences: