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  • The Mem Sahib, the Worthy, the Rajah and His Minions:Some Reflections on the Class Politics of The Secret Garden1
  • Jerry Phillips (bio)

Introduction: The Empire's Homecoming

The preeminent influence on twentieth-century British society has arguably been the decline of the British Empire. For over three hundred years, the construction and maintenance of the imperial system provoked themes which reverberated at every level of the British polity—that is to say, it set limits, effective cultural parameters, on what it was and what it meant in terms of lived experienced to be British in relation to foreigners from the four corners of the globe. Empire—and the perennial desire for its enlargement—is massively implicated in the historical and political categories whose overlapping constitutes the ground for interrogating the British story of modernity. Chief among these categories are the organization of material interests and forces around mercantilism, finance, and industry; the development of a powerful and far-reaching military; the establishment of a bureaucratic state and "disciplinary" political culture to define and administer law and order, rights and obligations, the necessity of work and patterns of acceptable play; and, finally, the generation of an ideology of the national culture, and its concomitant bounded identity. Clearly, the British Empire was not the sole cause of any one of these historical trajectories, but its pervasive influence is detectable in all of them. Thus, the end of empire has had significant consequences on a number of fronts, ranging from the macroeconomic to the micropolitical.

For example, as the high tide of imperial ideology has receded, it has left behind a social landscape strewn with murky controversies concerning citizenship, ancestry, race, and the law.2 At this moment of writing, British immigration legislation expresses a political will to deny certain groups of British subjects the right of citizenship and ergo the right of residence (e.g., Hong Kong Chinese); at the same time, the door is kept open (or at least unlocked) for those foreign nationals whose cultural profile is ideologically acceptable (e.g., South Africans of English descent). [End Page 168] This deliberate inequity can only be understood in relation to a fundamental historical impasse, a vexed and sometimes vicious legacy: the diverse racial make-up of the former British Empire and the existing Commonwealth. Race alone has turned the notion of Britishness upside down and inside out. Where the empire was "an extension of the English nationality" (John Robert Seeley qtd. in Bennet 273), postcolonial nationalism has sought to contain national identity within an implacable existential frame. The paradoxical result is that Britishness has simply exploded into a speculative politics about whether or not nationality can be defined as an ethnic or legal identity, a language or language of values, a cultural state of mind or an essential state of being. Britishness has been invested with differential racial, legal, moral, cultural, and political value; it has become a signifier with overdetermined significance. In short, where imperial certainty once ruled, ideological uncertainty has gained apace.

The open-endedness of the debate about British identity throws brilliant light upon the enduring legacy of empire—the way it returns home, what might be called its blowback effect. I borrow the term "blowback" from espionage jargon, in which it refers to "unexpected—and negative—effects at home that result from . . . operations overseas" (Simpson 5). The return of the imperial program inevitably establishes a critical dialogue with the domestic institutions of "the mother country," the same institutions that promoted the program in the first place. The effect can often be unsettling, nowhere more so than in the field of social class. The measure of social class is a powerful analytic tool for prising open the ideological secrets of nation building and national self-regulation. Class allows us to appreciate the political meaning of blowback; through a reading of class, we can detect the cultural impact of the end of empire on how elites control their subordinates at home.

The concern of this essay can be summarized thus: if one form of empire—colonialism—is the great program of extending home away from home, then what happens when the program collapses and how does the...


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