One reason why rural hedges are so important, and symbolic in British history is the enclosures, the process by which open fields and common land were divided into smaller, privately controlled plots of land.
Enclosures were made from at least the 13th century, and were a source of great controversy in the 15th and 16th centuries when land was enclosed for sheep for the wool industry. Between1750 and 1850, over 2000 miles of enclosure hedge were planted each year. Fast growing shrubs like blackthorn and hawthorn transformed the countryside. The enclosure commissioners were often corrupt and susceptible to bribes. The poorest commoners were often granted the least fruitful land, or lost their land when they were unable to afford hedges or fences and were thus forced to sell at a cheap price. As a result, the rich became richer and the poor were driven from the land into the expanding cities.
I see the enclosures as a key part of the way that private landownership became inextricably entwined with political power in this country. Of course landownership was always the source of the wealth of the “landed gentry” but from the 18th century onwards the explicit class system was replaced by a more subtle concentration of wealth and power. Britain was now run by ” a committee of landlords” (only landowners could vote before 1832), the law became geared towards the interests of landowners, and the taxation system consequently focused on income rather than land as its main source.
And of course, landownership is still crucial today. The credit crunch was largely driven by banks lending against property, thus pushing up prices and effectively transferring wealth from ordinary people to banks (via interest on elevated prices) and landowners (via rents, which have risen considerably in real terms).
What we are seeing in the News International scandal is a reminder of how “clubby” the establishment still is. In David Cameron we have a wealthy prime minister who owns a big chunk of land, who has always been part of a privileged class, whose cabinet has a significant proportion of millionaires and who is presiding over a government keener to cut spending on the poorest in society than to punish the banks for their errors.
But both parties have pandered to the interests of the wealthy and powerful for decades, and we are seeing exactly how supine they (and the rest of the establishment) have been when it came to News Corp.
I’m not sure our politics have moved on much from the age of the enclosures.