Hull and the Rise of Neoliberalism

Another of Bustamante’s favoured subjects took him to the western edge of the city. There, at a narrow point in the estuary, the Humber Bridge would soon link the north and south banks. His photos often show the half-built bridge and in the foreground, the people who gathered each weekend to watch the vast concrete and steel structure take shape above the dark waters and shifting sandbanks. Plans for a bridge over the estuary had been drawn up in the 1930s and revised in the 50s, but it was not until 1966 that that they finally got the go-ahead, when Harold Wilson directed Transport Minister Barbara Castle to raise the needed funds. Labour’s fear that it might lose the 1966 Hull North by-election, which it needed to hold to maintain a parliamentary majority of just one seat, appears to have played a significant role in the timing of the announcement. In any case, as a towering symbol of 60s social democracy, the Bridge seemed a fitting counterpart to the new tower blocks across the city and the new Royal Infirmary and College buildings.

By the time the Bridge eventually opened in 1981, Margaret Thatcher was two years into her first term as Prime Minister and the neoliberal project trialled by force in Chile was rapidly reshaping life in Britain. Thatcher’s enthusiasm for transferring public services into private hands was matched by her disdain for the kinds of municipal power and ambition that had shaped and reshaped Hull. As Sarah Jaffe recently wrote, the neoliberal restructuring of state and economy also entailed an attempt to destroy the very notion of solidarity, largely by offering those with little wealth or power ‘…the pleasures of cruelty, the negative solidarity of seeing others made even worse off than themselves by cuts to the welfare state’.

In his foreword to Kingston upon Hull 1970s, Bustamante writes of how, while he wandered the streets of Hull, he could see the ground being cleared for this new world, a world in which: ‘…people were forced to exchange their freedoms and sense of civic identity for cheap goods and a more affluent social setting, to which they only had non-member rights.’

A wonderful essay by Tom White for MAP magazine on the photography of Luis Bustamante, which documented the tandem arrival of Chilean refugees fleeing Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher’s own brand of neoliberalism to Kingston-Upon-Hull.

The photo above, of a half-built Humber Bridge, has etched itself into my brain since I first read this last week. It reminds me, as so many photos of the foreshore do, of that Larkin poem, which describes the strange nihilism of Hull’s gaze, turned towards the estuary and the North Sea, ignoring the rest of the UK over its shoulder:

Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

The construction of the Humber Bridge — I didn’t know its political context before reading this — refutes that slightly, but it is funny to me that people still gather there today, just like this.

I’ve spent countless hours sat under it, gazing outwards. I think I’ve only crossed it three times in my life…

On a related note, looking for blogged photos of the Humber, I rediscovered this old post of assorted Humber Bridge memories…

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