The Single-Minded Country Boy


Antonio Salazar was Europe’s longest serving Prime Minister in modern times. I wonder how much this can be ascribed to his farming background? In his 36 years presiding over the affairs of Portugal, this conservative autocrat, never allowed himself to be swallowed up by the bustle and self-importance of its capital, Lisbon. He ran Portugal rather like a punctilious head butler in charge of a sprawling country estate. He showed a painstaking attention to detail, checking administration to a minute level, but was accessible to numerous people whose requests, in the form of petitions and letters, he patiently scrutinised.

His mother Maria was a strong influence. A believer in order and propriety, it has been said that if ill-intentioned people strayed onto their land, unlike her husband António she would have no hesitation in confronting the troublemakers and chasing them away.

It was perhaps from his quieter father, a factor on a country estate, that he learnt to be good at negotiation.  In World War II British diplomatic envoys soon recognised that he saw the Nazi cause as immoral and wanted Britain (and especially its empire) to survive. But he was not going to be pushed around or surrender Portugal’s neutrality which he felt was the only viable course for a small and vulnerable country if it was to avoid being swallowed up in the vicious maelstrom.

In the mid-1960s, he was instrumental in foiling Harold Wilson’s bid to swiftly end Ian Smith’s defiance of Britain and his desire for a swift passage to black majority rule in Rhodesia. After meeting the then 75-year-old politician Smith wrote:

‘I found the simplicity, sincerity and determination of the man tremendously impressive, and the meeting will remain with me as an unforgettable experience. In my estimation, he was a man of great honesty and dedication who could be relied on to stand by his word. Sadly for us, he was not a young man, and time eventually caught up with him. Had he stayed on for an extra decade, Rhodesia would have survived.’

For over forty years Portugal has had a multi-party democracy. Its administrative and economic track record has not been impressive, but stability has usually prevailed. This is a far cry from the long period of disorderly liberalism which culminated in a 16-year republican regime which, long after its overthrow in 1926, remained a byword for chaos and instability.

Salazar grew up amidst this turbulence. His scholarly abilities enabled him to go to university despite modest means. His capacity for hard work and analytical skills enabled him to become a professor of economics before he was thirty. A decade later in 1928, he became minister of finance. By now, the military had taken over. However, a power vacuum remained. Salazar filled it by balancing the books and pacifying the country with a moderate degree of force.

His Constitution of 1933 inaugurated a ‘New State which  aimed to exclude from public affairs  ‘men educated for the purely political struggle, the demagogic speculations, the emotional exaltation of the popular masses, and  therefore inclined to reduce the life of the nation to agitation itself.’

He argued that the most important freedoms lay outside the realm of politics and that they were imperilled by political parties which put their own appetites before all else. Thus, although his regime had an elected parliament and President, competing parties were excluded.

He placed strong faith in the reliability of a benevolent and competent governing corps, perhaps one schooled in Christian religious principles and devoid of the influence of post 1789 French radical thought. But he would not be granted the space to refine his design for governance in Portugal. International events would, arguably, blow the regime off course while it was still in its infancy. The Spanish Civil War, quickly followed by the Second World War, and then the Cold War, absorbed Salazar’s energies.  He was horrified by the emergence of the Soviet Union as a major world power able to enjoy key influence in the United Nations from which it excluded Portugal until the 1950s.

However, Portugal was invited to join NATO as a founder member in 1949. He hesitated about joining, believing the founding charter was insipid.  Criticism of communism was not enough. There needed to be a declaration ‘more in conformity with the agreed principles of a civilization that ought to be defended’.

He came to believe that it was far likelier the Soviets would advance their goals through subversion rather than military expansion.  He was convinced recurring features of elective democracies made them especially vulnerable and he decided not to dismantle his autocratic system and restore the parties. Already by the 1950s, it was clear that, as in other South European countries like France and Italy, the Communist party was the chief opposition force. When it enjoyed 18 months of power and influence in the mid-1970s after the military intervened to topple the regime, the jails had never been fuller with political prisoners at any other time in history.

Steady economic and social progress occurred particularly during the second half of the regime’s existence. But the pace of change was not spectacular. Salazar distrusted innovation for its own sake and even the regimes many conservative supporters in the smallholding north of the country complained about being overlooked.

Salazar’s priority was retaining what the regime described as overseas Portugal during the era of European-sponsored decolonisation.  He stood up to the US administration of John F. Kennedy who naively assumed that sponsoring weakly-implanted African nationalism could act as an effective buffer against communism. He told visitors from the US State Department:

‘We have been in Africa for 400 years, which is a little more than having shown up yesterday. We stand for a doctrine which is different from being governed by an interest. We have the authority to execute and defend a policy, which is distinct from abandoning human destinies to the winds of change.’

In 1961 Portugal invoked the Anglo-Portuguese alliance in the hope that the Macmillan government would forestall India’s Jahawarlal Nehru from seizing Goa which had been ruled by Portugal for the past four hundred years. But London refused to  stand by its ally and it was from de Gaulle’s France and Adenauer’s West Germany that Portugal received the strongest backing as it sought to contain guerrilla challenges in its African territories sponsored by the Americans and much more systematically by the Soviets.

Salazar vowed that the Americans would have to kill him before he would accede to their ill-thought-out plans for Africa.  He often recharged his batteries by returning to his native village sometimes for long periods. These usually coincided with important moments in the agricultural calendar. Only major crises prevented him being back in the autumn for the gathering-in of the grapes or the bottling of the wine on his small estate. There he sometimes received important guests like the British general Bernard Montgomery who retained contact with Salazar after being deputy head of NATO in the early 1950s. 

Salazar’s Premiership came to an end in 1968 when he suffered a severe stroke. His regime had become increasingly a personal one and he left no obvious successor which contributed to its collapse six years later. David (Lord) Eccles, a member of the Macmillan cabinet offered a critical tribute after his death in 1970:

‘The Salazar I knew was by any standard a great man, from whom I learned many scraps of wisdom… I accept that he stayed in office far too long … he allowed the secret police to do things we all regretted. But, in the early days of the war, when defenceless neutrals were easily persuaded that the defeat of Britain must follow the collapse of France, he never concealed his hope that we would win, and he took risks on the assumption that someday, somehow, we would.’

The junior officers who briefly took charge of Portugal in the mid-1970s scuttled the overseas territories whose fate has been grim. Mozambique is threatened by an Islamist insurgency and Angola has still to recover from a long-running civil-war.

No Portuguese democratic leader has come anywhere near to Salazar as an effective economic steward and sponsor of development. In 2007 the conservative author Jaime Nogueira Pinto produced a programme on state television which argued that Salazar was an honest man who, as an authoritarian ruler, had exercised his powers with restraint and had done various important services to the nation. Shortly afterwards Salazar received 41 per cent of the 159,245 votes cast in the television competition for the Greatest Portuguese in history.

Many Portuguese have forgotten the censorship, the existence of the secret police and the conformity of the Salazar era.  They hold him in some respect for his asceticism, the simplicity of the life he led, and the strength of his patriotism. Upon his death his material possessions would have been lucky to buy him a modest flat.  A country lad had come far thanks to possessing an uncommon intelligence and a single-minded determination to offer some account to the nation. On the 50th anniversary of Salazar’s death this month, he is a politician whose virtues as well as his flaws deserve to be recalled.

Tom Gallagher’s biography, Salazar: the Dictator Who Refused To Die is published in London by Hurst & co on 23 July. Tom is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University.