Stalin Would Be Proud of the White Elephant That Towers over the One-Party State of Hull

By Barker, Paul | New Statesman (1996), April 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Stalin Would Be Proud of the White Elephant That Towers over the One-Party State of Hull


Barker, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


I can't report on the view from the bridge. Vertigo descended. I clutched the wheel in a cold sweat, stared straight ahead, and prayed for the high, swooping cables of the world's longest suspension span to come down, finally, to solid earth. I paid the attendant my [pounds]2.10 toll, and put the vertigo behind me.

I had decided to enter the one-party city state of Hull across the Humber bridge.

In a city whose politics are mired in quarrels and sharp practice, this was the biggest sweetener of all. In 1966 Harold Wilson was terrified Labour would lose a Hull by-election. Barbara Castle, his transport minister, announced that the long-promised crossing would be built. Labour won the by-election so resoundingly that Wilson called a (victorious) general election.

The bridge is now the whitest of white elephants. It was meant to unite the two halves of a projected New City of Humberopolis, a Milton Keynes of the north. The rising birth rate was supposed to demand it. But the debt-laden bridge is hardly used. Humberopolis never happened.

In between Hull constituency business, I like to think John Prescott sometimes goes to sit on his folding camp-stool in the Humber reed beds, and looks out at the most expensive view in the north of England. I see him as a 20th-century version of Edward Gibbon, musing on the classical rains in Rome, and deciding to write The Decline and Fall. But this time it would be a two-part treatise. Volume 1: The decline and fall of demographic forecasting. Volume 2: Regional regeneration is easier announced than done. Both will be handy for his shelves at the grandiosely named Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The 500-foot towers of the bridge rise teasingly above the ruler-flat north Lincolnshire landscape. Stalin would have been proud: a monument to socialist endeavour. You then come down into Hull. This is as sad as any East German historic town left in the care of Ulbricht and Honecker. Eric Hobsbawm argues that Soviet communism made Britain and other bits of the west perk up their welfare systems to compete. I'm not so sure. But, unarguably, emulation of Stalin's Moscow shaped the British postwar consensus on how to rebuild cities.

Hull was badly bombed. But the city council knocked down more historic streets and churches than the air raids did. It was as if they wanted to erase memory. Germans say Dresden was destroyed twice: by Anglo-American bombers and by communist reconstruction. (Dresden is now being re-rebuilt.) Ditto, on a smaller scale, in Hull. …

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