PhD Thesis in International History
22 December 2020

Colonial Membership of the League of Nations

In his PhD thesis in International History, Dr Thomas Gidney studies the accession of three British colonial states to the League of Nations: India in 1919, Ireland in 1923 and Egypt in 1937. He thus tracks the development of colonial representation from its outset at the League’s creation in 1919 towards the end of the League’s authority in the latter half of the 1930s. Although admitting colonies to international organisations was only practised by the British Empire, the inclusion of British colonial polities in international organisations reveals new practices in imperial policy to legitimise empire in the face of growing nationalist resistance to colonial rule.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

The topic came to me during an exchange semester during my master’s degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. I wanted to combine my historical interests in India, Geneva, and British imperial history into a single topic. That was when I came across the seemingly anomalous position of India as a full member-state of the League of Nations, that questioned what I believed to be the basis of membership of an international organisation: statehood. Moreover, it questioned how imperial structures operated, having assumed that giving a colony international representation undermined the notion of a unitary imperial polity. 

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

I will start by explaining the title. “An anomaly among anomalies” was a quote by the American legal advisor at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where the League of Nations was created. This suggested that contemporaries found the “anomalies” being the accession of Britain’s internally self-governing colonies, or “Dominions”, to the League as an anomaly. However, India’s position at the League as a non-self-governing colony was even more anomalous. This suggests that normatively, the “participation” of colonies at the League was anomalous but went ahead anyway. 

What I investigated was how anomalous was their membership by 1919, and under what basis, both politically and legally, were India and the Dominions allowed to join the League. Moreover, what were the political motivations within the British Empire for allowing their colonies to join? Remember that no other empire copied Britain’s model of including their colonies in the League. And finally, what were the political and legal precedents created by including India and the Dominions in the League, and how were they used when Ireland joined the League in 1923, as well as Egypt in 1937?

There has not been much research on this topic, with previous works focussing on the history of a single state, such as India or Ireland’s history at the League, whilst there was no work on Egypt’s accession to the League. Thus, much of this study was conducted by examining primary sources in archives. These archives were in Geneva, Paris, London, Oxford, Dublin and Delhi, whilst also using some online archives. 

What are your major findings?

I found that the idea of colonies at the League was not historically anomalous as colonies had been present at some of the earliest international organisations, such as the International Telegraph Union and Universal Postal Union founded in the mid-19th century. However, by 1919, the notion of including colonies in international organisations and conferences had been generally shunned by the United States, who preferred to exclude European colonies from “participating” in the international sphere. 

Britain’s ability to include its colonies was thus an exception, leading many to see Britain’s actions as attempting to multiply its votes at the League’s Assembly. However, my research reveals how Britain’s primary concern was to deal with the rapid discontent within the Empire as nationalist organisations demanded greater autonomy, if not outright independence. Offering League membership was seen as an important, albeit symbolic, devolution of power, due to the totemic significance of international personality in the path to statehood. 

This was also applied in Ireland, which had a powerful nationalist insurgency. The League provided an important guarantor for nationalists seeking greater powers, as it acted as a certifying institution for their new nominal statehood. But this membership, and the symbolism it supplied, was contingent on negotiation with Britain. Whilst Ireland concluded an agreement with Britain, allowing it rapid entry into the League, Egypt, which did not sign a treaty with Britain following its nominal independence in 1922, was obstructed from joining the League until 1937. The ability to include or exclude colonies from the League thus gave Britain considerable political leverage in managing the growing nationalist insurgencies within its Empire. 

What are the social and political implications of your thesis? 

The thesis concludes on how the United Nations continued the tradition of including colonies and other quasi-sovereign polities, by allowing the Soviet Union to include Belorussia and Ukraine. They would not be independent states until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Therefore, the foundations of the League in 1919 have often been carried through into the international institutions we have today. 

There are also normative lessons to be learnt from the thesis. The inclusion of British colonies reveals how the so-called “Great Powers” have shaped and generated new norms and exceptions in the international system. Moreover, the politics of these powerful states continues to have a considerable influence on the recognition of polities seeking membership of the United Nations, such as the creation of a Palestinian State, or the “One China” policy that excludes Taiwan from UN membership. 

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Listen also to this podcast with Thomas, in which he shares his experience as a doctoral student as he speaks about his recently obtained PhD thesis:

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Thomas Gidney defended his PhD thesis in International History in November 2020. Professor Cyrus Schayegh presided the committee, which included Assistant Professor Carolyn Biltoft, thesis supervisor, and Professor Stephen Legg, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Gidney, Thomas. “‛An Anomaly among Anomalies’: Colonial Membership of the League of Nations.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository.

Editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from a photo of the Indian delegation.