Seen at its inception in December 1852 as a distillation of political talent, the Aberdeen Coalition held office for just two years and one month. It was brought down in January 1855 by allegations of gross military mismanagement in the Crimean War. With the exception of William Gladstone’s 1853 budget, the coalition has not been regarded as a great success.
The 68-year-old Lord Aberdeen headed a Coalition Cabinet made up of Whigs, Liberals, one Radical and prominent Peelites (those who, like Aberdeen, had followed Sir Robert Peel after the Conservative Party split over the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846). Although the Cabinet was united in their advocacy of Free Trade, this rich political compound contained personalities who were to place coalition relations under intense strain. The Conservative leader Lord Derby declared it ‘difficult to imagine how a government can go on formed of such discordant materials as that which Aberdeen has brought together.’ The senior Peelite Sir James Graham described the coalition as ‘a tessellated pavement’.
Parliamentary reform pledge
The Whig former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, as Minister without Portfolio from February 1853, extracted from Aberdeen a pledge to introduce a parliamentary Reform Bill, and an indication that he would, in time, stand down as premier to make way for Russell. The long-serving Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was appointed Home Secretary, privately describing Aberdeen as an example of ‘antiquated imbecility’. The talented and intense younger Peelite William Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other Peelites, the ambitious Duke of Newcastle, Sir James Graham, Sidney Herbert and the Duke of Argyll also assumed Cabinet roles, while Sir William Molesworth, one of the Philosophic Radical circle influenced by the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham in the 1830s, became First Commissioner of Works.
None of five or six ministers, observed the diarist Charles Greville, were ‘likely to acknowledge the superiority or defer to the opinions of any other… every one of these five or six considering himself abler and more important than the premier.’ That the lion’s share of cabinet offices were given to Peelites rankled with backbench Whigs and Liberals. When Benjamin Disraeli, in the Commons, lampooned the Whigs as subservient to the Peelites, and the radicals as the tools of both, it was described by Lord Stanley as ‘a most skilful and ingenious rubbing up of old sores.’ Tensions were exacerbated by the fact that Aberdeen sat as premier in the House of Lords.
Prudent, industrious, healthy
In April 1853 Gladstone bolstered the authority of the coalition ministry with a landmark Free Trade budget removing tariffs and introducing a fiscal policy bearing more equally across society. This was Peelite practice writ large, informed by a desire to stimulate active (as opposed to idle) wealth, prudence (rather than waste), industrious (as opposed to spontaneous) income, and healthy (as opposed to dissipated) consumption. Delivered in an impassioned speech of epic proportions, Gladstone’s budget also established the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer (as distinct from the Prime Minister’s role as First Lord of the Treasury) and national finance as central to executive politics. It defined the framework of Victorian national finances for the rest of the century.
The government was not devoid of legislative achievement. During the 1853 session the Whig Sir Charles Wood, as President of the Board of Control, passed the India Act, amending, though falling short of overhauling, the government of the sub-continent, and the Canadian Clergy Reserves Act affirming the authority of the colonial legislature to allot public land grants to support Nonconformist and Catholic ministers, as well as Anglican clergy. Palmerston, as Home Secretary, oversaw the passage of a Factory Act prohibiting the employment of children under twelve between 6.00 pm and 6.00am. Law reforms initiated by Derby’s government of 1852 were passed, notably the Charitable Trusts Act which established Charity Commissioners to advise charitable trusts. But major legislation to reform elementary education (heralded by Aberdeen as a coalition priority) and to remove the barriers to Jews entering parliament was dropped.
Darkening clouds of crisis
The darkening clouds of European crisis then descended on the coalition, leading to the outbreak of the Crimean War. Britain, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire against Russian expansion. In Westminster this produced an irritated impatience with Russell’s introduction of a parliamentary Reform Bill in February 1854. Refusing ‘to be dragged through the dirt by John Russell’, Palmerston briefly resigned from the Aberdeen cabinet in December 1853. Ostensibly this was over Russell’s persistence with reform, though Palmerston also skilfully identified himself with growing criticism of Aberdeen’s timid and ineffective diplomacy. Radical attacks in the press on Aberdeen’s hesitant diplomacy, precipitating a drift into war, also targeted an alleged unconstitutional interference in foreign policy by Prince Albert, with his Germanic sympathies. After Britain formally joined the war against Russia in March 1854, an emotional Russell was forced to withdraw his Reform Bill.
Disease, hunger, neglect
During the winter of 1854-5, W. H. Russell’s graphic descriptions in The Times of the disease, hunger and neglect ravaging British troops in the Crimea stirred domestic outrage. These reports of alarming mismanagement fell heavily on a government supposedly packed with talent. The luckless Duke of Newcastle, holding the newly-created office of Secretary for War, became the inevitable focus of criticism. There were growing attacks by radicals and others on the inadequacy of aristocratic government.
In January 1855 the Radical MP John Roebuck moved a House of Commons motion calling for a Select Committee to investigate the conduct of the war. In what Lord Stanley described as ‘a dexterous leap out of a sinking boat’, Russell resigned from the government on 25 January. On 29 January, Roebuck’s motion passed by 305 to 148 votes. This crushing defeat was met with a slight incredulous laugh from the Opposition and stunned mortification on the government benches. As Gladstone observed: “The majority … not only brought us down, but sent us down with such a thwack that one heard one’s head thump as it hit the ground.”
A broken Aberdeen travelled to Windsor Castle on 30 January to submit his resignation as Prime Minister to the Queen.
British coalition governments are often occasioned by war, as in 1915 and 1940. Initially seen as a distillation of talent, the Aberdeen Coalition was brought down by war. It proved (with the exception of Gladstone’s budget) a political disappointment. Yet it did foreshadow the merging of political elements which led to the foundation of the parliamentary Liberal Party in 1859. That potent blend of Peelite expertise, Whig commitment to civil and religious liberty, Liberal progressivism and radical zeal, which comprised Gladstone’s great Liberal party after 1868, experienced its collective initiation in executive politics under Aberdeen between 1852 and 1855.