Gallagher’s Salazar


An anomaly among modern dictators, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar exemplified the power of a negative personality. He held Portugal in thraldom for more than 40 years, a record of durability unmatched by Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler, his Fascist counterparts (and good friends). Due to Salazar’s long rule, a detached evaluation of him is difficult. He is considered either a saviour of interwar Portugal and an exponent of Christian philosophy in politics, or, on the contrary, a fascist-leaning dictator who obstructed his country’s democratic evolution.

Tom Gallagher’s biography Salazar, published by Hurst, offers a detailed account in just under three hundred pages of how Salazar controlled Portugal for over four decades, outwitting the leaders of larger nations to maintain a hold on the unruly factions in his country. Gallagher is meticulous in his writing and has built this biography on a myriad of sources and understandings.

Gallagher traces Salazar’s journey from his humble beginnings as a boy from Vimeiro through to his growing disdain for democracy in Portugal. Then follows Salazar’s rise to power – his undying support of the military, Portugal’s rich families and dislike of the press and trade unions, through to Salazar’s standing up to the British and defending Portuguese colonial interests like Mozambique. The author covers Salazar’s private life in a chapter entitled Salazar’s Private World which shows a more human side to the dictator’s self-confident and austere political face.

This book is a remarkable analysis of Salazar’s foreign policy and geopolitical views. Gallagher describes Portugal’s fascinating relationship with the US. How the Americans saw the Azores as defined by the Monroe doctrine as an American sphere of influence – Salazar warding the Americans off by offering them Lajes airbase on the islands but negotiating mere five-year short leases with them. Salazar considered the Americans as nouveaux riches and followers of mammon, ever keen to keep them at a distance despite their growing influence.

Gallagher covers Salazar’s deft handling of Portugal’s neutrality during the Second World War and goes into detail on how he handled others’ designs on his country and colonial assets – how Britain’s fears for Spain’s entry into the war on the side of the Germans of course caused talk back in London of seizing Portugal.

In the end Salazar hung on too long. In a chapter called The Fading of the Light, Gallagher details Salazar’s failing health and over-reliance on the secret police in Portugal. Salazar is an old man in a new world – his paternalistic and racist approach to Empire causing unnecessary ructions. Gallagher notes how Salazar referred to ‘little black folk’ in one meeting without even thinking of it.

Overall this is a very readable and illuminating book. Tom Gallagher deserves great credit for his work. If you want to learn about one of Europe’s most recent yet most forgotten dictators, this biography is a book you should buy.

I caught up with Tom Gallagher during lockdown and asked him some questions about Salazar:

Why was a temperate figure like Salazar committed to an authoritarian path for Portugal?

It should not be forgotten that there have been democratic phases, especially like the present one (with identity politics in full spate) where outspoken and confrontational figures enjoy success.  Salazar began his public career as Portugal was emerging from a lengthy absorption with identity politics that had led to the overthrow of the nearly 800-year-old monarchy in 1910 and official persecution of the church.

Salazar felt that the conditions for restoring Portugal’s finances and tackling long neglected national problems could only be met by discontinuing party politics.  He did not lay great stress on popular sovereignty due to his conviction that the masses were easily manipulated by demagogues.

Probably no other authoritarian leader has been less bellicose and confrontational than Salazar. He prevailed because of an ability to balance previously antagonistic interests and pacify the country by an exercise of quiet authority.

He was pessimistic about the ability of long-term concord to emerge from pluralist democracies. Britain, Switzerland and the Nordic countries were the only places where he thought electoral democracy could endure. (He had unhappy dealing American leaders in the Second World War and again in the 1960s which made him see US politics as a kind of freak show).

There is the possibility that, but for the severity of the international crisis that erupted in the mid-1930s, he would have eventually relaxed his grip and perhaps a strong Gaullist-style democracy would have emerged. But the emergence of the Soviet Union as a major world power deepened his pessimism. Once the local communist party emerged as the chief focus of opposition, he felt that his firm paternalism could not be relaxed. The dangers were too great. Eventually in 1975 the Communists would try to seize power. But popular resistance foiled their attempted takeover. Five years dead, Salazar would not have been surprised about the near success of a danger he had always warned about. But he may well have been surprised that the people who he felt were too easily manipulated, played the key role in foiling their power-bid.

The Author

What difference did it make that he regarded himself as ‘a peasant’ and was always attached to his home village?

He came from the northern half of Portugal, above the river Tagus, which is widely seen as the spiritual core of Portugal where the ‘Reconquest’ against the Moors got underway.

As the son of enterprising smallholders (his mother Maria being the most dynamic parent), he was seen as  belonging to a different category to the urban lawyers, notables, and intriguers who had largely been to the fore during a century of liberalism from the 1820s, an epoch that is widely associated with a long period of national decline.

His rural upbringing reinforced a fatalistic outlook about the impermanence of things. The need to acquire or keep scarce goods and resources also made him an effective negotiator in international relations, enabling him to obtain good terms from the British in several encounters. His frugality and self-discipline probably also sprang from the fact that his family was brought up with very little.

For relaxation Salazar preferred to return 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. Interestingly, he didn’t bestow the place he had started out with public works or factories as was the habit of several Balkan and Central Asian dictators.

How did he differ from his Iberian counterpart Franco in his approach to power?

The two leaders were of a different stamp, Franco a soldier who had won power by the exercise of often brutal force, and Salazar an academic who had risen to the top by cunning statecraft and dedication to his public duties. What they shared was deep-seated prudence and a powerful survival instinct.  Franco began by seeing Salazar as a pawn of Britain but grew to admire his wartime diplomacy. Salazar’s central objective was to keep Spain from joining the Axis and midway through World War II, Franco realised he was right. But their relationship was a transactional one not based on any real ideological affinity. The Franco regime was overtly Catholic and influenced by the military and the far-Right Falange while Salazar’s was more of a technocratic system that was only ideological in its stout defence of Portugal’s colonies. Salazar was disappointed that Franco would not support him on the world stage in resisting the push for decolonisation. 

However harsh its birth, the Franco regime proved more adaptable to modern conditions than Salazar’s. Faster economic growth and more widely shared benefits of developments created a strong moderate middle-class that enabled Spanish authoritarianism to be peacefully dismantled in the 1970s (to the surprise of many). By contrast, the inability to defeat guerrilla insurgencies in Africa left the Salazar regime (under an indecisive successor, Marcello Caetano) isolated internationally and enfeebled at home.

Did he detect any underlying defects in ruling liberalism even though his own remedies may have been faulty?

Salazar refused to subordinate human beings to ideological abstractions. He believed ideologies failed because they were based on falsehoods about human nature.  Universal formulas were advanced but in practice proponents of ideology were often hypocritical and driven by a will to power. Communism he saw as dangerous because it possessed messianic religious elements. Liberalism, he saw as hypocritical and self-serving. Its champions linked it with progress but he saw liberalism as destructive, intent on sweeping away norms learned in families, in communities, through religion and a supporting culture.

The old order was dismissed wholesale as reactionary by liberals but he argued that liberalism had nothing enduring to replace it with. The fabric of civilization was unlikely to fare well under so-called progressives because of the desire to constantly promote innovations that were at variance with human nature. He was in no doubt that the economic models which liberalism promoted could not guarantee economic justice or stability.  It was keen on maximising personal rights and freedoms in the social sphere, but its selfishness meant it was ill-equipped to create enduring political forms.

Portugal’s own experience had taught him to regard liberalism as parasitical. Elites emerged which depleted material and moral resources. Corrupt cabals claimed to be at the service of a universal moral ideal but were ready to crush any who had a different view of what the common good should be.

He wrote in 1934:

‘Our liberalism, suave and false was always intolerant and jacobin. If it was able to inveigle its way back into power tomorrow, it would be not only anti-Catholic but anti-Christian, irreligious, furiously atheistic, leaving it so divorced from the things of the spirit to be amoral in theory and practice. Its fatal habit of exploiting the masses without them receiving any palpable benefit … means that they end up hating everything that is superior in virtue, intelligence and beauty.’

These views echo what thinkers like John Gray and Nick Timothy in Britain and Patrick Deneen and Michael Lind in America have said about the high-handed and monopolistic behaviour of ruling, or influential, liberals in their societies.

Salazar thought that he was organizing society for the benefit of the majority; allowing people to exercise the key freedoms which he believed lay outside the domain of narrow politics and were usually threatened, especially in Latin countries like Portugal by careerists and agitators who used elections to indulge their personal appetites.

 Much of Salazar’ standing rests on the fact that he did not use his marathon stint in power to enrich himself. Otelo de Carvalho, perhaps the best-known of the military radicals of the mid-1970s afterwards said:

‘We need a man with the intelligence and honesty of Salazar but without the intention of imposing an Italian-style fascism.’

Salazar’s regime was a traditional autocracy where the emphasis was on depoliticisation not mobilisation or on constant interference by the state in the lives of citizens. But arguably he failed to uphold the common good by ensuring that economic benefits were widely shared. His attention was increasingly taken up with foreign affairs and he feared that north European style welfare states would soften the character of the ordinary Portuguese.

Portugal was ruled after 1945 in the style of a rural corner of England where local government was in the hands of efficient but cautious independents. He had no interest in ideologists of the right like Carl Schmidt. But nor does he seem to have been aware of English social philosophers like G.K.Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc who  promoted small-scale family farming, small units of trade, and industry and various crafts. Their distributism, which has been given a renewed voice by Philip Blond, would have fitted well with Salazar’s ‘small is beautiful’ approach to government. It would have left the smallholding Catholic north of Portugal in much better shape by the end of his rule in 1968 rather than making it a source of mass emigration to the African colonies and Northern Europe.  Perhaps Salazar’s greatest failure was not to develop a form of popular conservatism meant to be a bulwark for family and community life.

Why does it seem unlikely for someone from his traditionalist background to enjoy the chance of exercising power today except in a few corners of Europe?

The European Union is urban and post-modern in its policy preferences and the symbols it chooses to acquire wider legitimisation. When a constitution was being drafted in 2004 it was no coincidence that a reference to the Christian roots of Europe was excluded thanks to pressure successfully applied by liberal and left-wing forces. 

Except in a few countries like Poland, Austria and Hungary, the rural and small-holding world lacks influence and leverage.  There may only be a slight modification if national conservatives make it into government in France or Italy. In Portugal, the pre-Salazar urban elite drawn from the liberal professions is back in charge, but its unimpressive performance has produced underlying resentment

This complacent political and intellectual elite received a jolt when, in 2007, viewers of the state television series Great Portuguese—having been asked to vote for the greatest figure in Portuguese history—chose Salazar. A case was made for various candidates in an hour-long documentary. The conservative author Jaime Nogueira Pinto produced a programme which argued that Salazar was an honest man who, as an authoritarian ruler, had exercised his authority with restraint and had done great service to the nation by taking it from the edge of financial disaster and keeping it out of World War II.

But someone like Salazar who was a professor of economics at the country’s main university, Coimbra before the age of 30, would probably struggle to get a job in higher education in Portugal or indeed Britain. This is true of counterparts like A.L. Rowse from Cornwall and David Starkey from Cumbria who emerged as unorthodox scholars of brilliance from fairly modest backgrounds.

Portugal had to collapse into virtual anarchy before someone like Salazar got the chance to take the country in hand and perhaps it will require another profound rupture in Europe as a whole before  conservatives get the chance to rebuild  society after the follies and failures of liberalism. I do not think people with Salazar’s tenacity and readiness to serve will be in short supply. But they should not repeat his mistake of denying ordinary citizens a sizeable role in building stable societies with a spiritual and ethical dimension.

I do not think they will.  Paradoxically, Salazar’s distrust of the ballot box, belief in rule by experts, and readiness to endorse censorship to control the flow of ideas now enjoy more favour among globalists on the left than among nationally minded conservatives.

Tom Gallagher’s Salazar, The Dictator Who Refused to Die is published by Hurst.