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Earl Of Aberdeen

Prime Minister 1852 - 55

George Hamilton Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, was born 28th January 1784 into a primarily rural Britain. He died in 1860 in an urban industrialised Britain. Aberdeen's life spanned a period in which the Industrial Revolution changed life. Society itself became more centralised, and it may have seemed that the government machine had a firmer hold over society. But Aberdeen illustrates the fact that a prime minister's apparent power is something of an illusion. In the same way that Shakespeare had portrayed kings as both powerful and powerless, modern prime ministers could tell the same kind of stories.

 

George Hamilton Gordon was privileged in the sense that he was born into an aristocratic family. But he was orphaned young, his parents dying in 1791 and 1795. Failing to get on with his grandfather, the two most important people in his guardianship were the Tory politicians Henry Dundas and Lord Melville. William Pitt the Younger was also involved. Following his education at Harrow and Christ Church College, Oxford, George succeeded as 4th Earl of Aberdeen in 1801 on the death of his grandfather. He immediately took up a seat in the House of Lords, and was to remain there for the rest of his life.

As the Napoleonic wars came to an end, Aberdeen played diplomatic roles. He was present at the final Napoleonic battles in 1813 - 14, and developed a deep aversion to warfare. A period followed in which Aberdeen concentrated on improving his estates, and providing better housing for those who lived on his property. He also followed his interest in art and history, serving as a trustee to the British Museum and the National Gallery. A return to active politics came in 1828, with a position in Wellington's government, and then the post of foreign secretary under Robert Peel. As Peel's foreign secretary Aberdeen did his best to follow a moderate and peaceful policy, ending war with China, settling boundary disputes between the United States and Canada, and encouraging more friendly relations with France.

 

Pembroke Lodge - Aberdeen's government made the decision to invade the Crimea here

Robert Peel died, following his long term as prime minister, in 1850. Aberdeen then emerged as the leader of the "Peelites", followers of the former prime minister who wished to remain as an identifiable group. It was as Peelite leader that Aberdeen was asked to form a coalition government in 1852. Initially things went well, with the passing of a Factory Act, an important peice of legislation in the promotion of decent working conditions for factory workers. But then events rapidly began to get out of control. Aberdeen faced a situation where public opinion, expressed through the new power of the media, was calling for war with Russia. The papers liked a spectacular story, which war always provided, and they liked good guys and bad guys, in this instance Turkey and Russia respectively. Russia could be presented as threatening British interests in the Middle East and India. The situation was further complicated by various religious disputes centred on the Middle East, with different countries fighting for influence over emotive religious sites in the Holy Land. A dark mix of religious feeling, and newspaper drum beating feeding nationalistic fervour, was soon forcing the peaceful Aberdeen towards a war he did not want. He pointed out that the supposed good guys in this scenario, the Turks, had a government which was "vicious and abominable". Although this was true, it was not the story that was required, and simply added to his unpopularity. The cabinet met at Pembroke Lodge in 1854 and decided to proceed with an invasion of the Crimea in southern Russia.

 

Florence Nightingale Museum

The Crimean War was the first war in history to use electronic telegraph to transmit messages over long distances. Sets used in the war are on display at the Royal Signals Museum in Dorset. Newspaper journalists used this new technology to get their stories back to London at unprecedented speed. After helping to force Britain into a war which the government did not want, and for which the military was not prepared, the press smugly went to work exposing government failings in military organisation. Reports by William Howard Russell of The Times newspaper were flashed quickly back to London by electronic telegraph and were read avidly in Britain. This was the first war where reporting of this immediate kind took place. Russell's writing had a huge influence on opinion. Tennyson wrote his Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854 after reading an article about it in The Times. Reports on conditions in hospitals led to Florence Nightingale travelling to the Crimea to try and improve medical care. Later in history military commanders and politicians would have to worry about battles, and also about what newspapers were saying about battles. This all began during the Crimean War.

 

Aberdeen was not responsible for the state of the army in 1853. Military budgets had been cut since 1815. But the public and the media wanted someone to blame. This, no doubt gave a sense of control. The government controlled the army, so the fact that soldiers were suffering terrible conditions in the Crimea must be the government's fault. It could not be the fault of hysterical public opinion resulting in a war over which no individual had much control. Aberdeen was invested with influence he did not have, and blamed for not using his influence. Inevitable resignation from office came in January 1856. The jingoistic Palmerston then became prime minister, and though he didn't really do anything to ease conditions in the Crimea, he made much better copy for newspapers.

The story of Aberdeen could be looked upon as a modern Shakespearian tragedy, where a peaceful man in supposedly the most powerful position in government, was swept along by the tides of history into actions that were totally alien to his nature. Aberdeen was no great leader with a tragic flaw. He was simply a decent man caught in a historical storm. It is disconcerting to see history like this, and we look for individuals to take blame. We look for personal failings to explain events. In reality history is a vast mass of events in which individuals are caught up. As Tolstoy said with regard to Napoleon in War and Peace, the more apparently powerful an individual, the more wide ranging the web of circumstance imposing on them, the less control they have. In the end it all depends on how you look at it. As Shakespeare showed, some leaders pretend to have control when they lack it, and some pretend to be the victim of circumstances to disguise their own actions. Quite where our own volition ends and circumstance begins is impossible to say. Historians will change their point of view. Writers like Tolstoy and Shakespeare find a truth that is applicable to Henry V, Napoleon and the Earl of Aberdeen.

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