An upside-down world: the bellicose democrat and temperate dictator

An upside-down world: the bellicose democrat and temperate dictator

by Tom Gallagher
article from Thursday 23, July, 2020

ANTÓNIO SALAZAR guided Portugal’s destiny for nearly forty years but remains an enigmatic and little-studied figure.  I decided to devote a year to trying to explore the reasons for the durability in power of a somewhat uncharismatic economics professor.

Even though he never acted as a strongman, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion he was a dictator. Under him not only were trade-unions unable to operate freely, but there was censorship and a vigilant secret police. Paradoxically, while Salazar was reluctant to let go, he never had a proprietorial attitude to the state. He paid the utility bills in his private quarters which were above his place of work. When he died, he was found to have very little money.

His habits as a ruler were temperate. He avoided official visits abroad, attending conferences, and media exposure. He was usually self-effacing, preferring to frame his rule as a consensual exercise involving like-minded patriots rather than as an exercise in projecting his ego. He won grudging respect from opponents for extricating Portugal from the brink of economic disaster in the late 1920s, balancing the books thereafter, and keeping the nation out of World War II, despite pressure bearing down from many sides.

Mário Soares, a key architect of democratic Portugal insisted here that Salazar was never corrupt, nor was he a fascist.

Today's democratic rulers of Portugal now prefer Salazar to disappear into history. The attempt to characterise him as a fascist was abandoned not long after the coup which led to the restoration of democracy in Portugal after two years of left-wing revolution in 1974-75.  

Beforehand, there had been no mass party, the people were largely left alone by the state rather than indoctrinated or mobilised.  His writings did not share the preoccupation of Hitler and Mussolini with militarism, territorial expansion, revolutionising society or asserting ethnic supremacy.

He was in charge of a rule-based authoritarian government rather than the more vicious party dictatorships where violence was never far below the surface.

Salazar undoubtedly stayed on too long, illness forcing his retirement in 1968, six years before his regime fell.  While it is possible to question the view (as he did) that a swift transfer to full independence in Portugal’s African territories was the best way forward, it is clear that his determination to resist the anti-colonial ‘winds of change’ was inflexible and not well-thought-out.

I am writing these thoughts down four days before the fiftieth anniversary of Salazar’s death. It is likely to be marked in a low-key way by his supporters with a commemorative mass and a banquet in his honour in the village where he was born in 1889.  

It also happens to be four days after the 50th birthday of Nicola Sturgeon. She is the democratically-elected leader of the decentralised government in Scotland which is subordinate to the Westminster parliament in London; she is the most visible beneficiary of the wave of regional decentralisation that occurred in Britain twenty years ago.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been no lack of media attention given to this anniversary. In-depth profiles and interviews have occurred. 

Unusually for  a democratic leader, the spotlight in combating this virus has fallen entirely on her with colleagues and even medical experts firmly in the background. In the face of deep scepticism in various quarters, she has claimed that the grueling medical crisis has at least enabled her to rise above normal politics, insisting that party politics has played no role in the decisions she has taken. 

Salazar also claimed that his was a government where party politics played no role.  It is one that perhaps  enjoys some credibility since his National Union was a decorative formation that played a peripheral role in national affairs.  The same can by no means be said of Sturgeon’s vehicle the Scottish National party (SNP).

After thirteen years in office, the SNP extends far beyond the strictly political sphere to embrace business, the charity sector, the media and education. Its ascendancy confirms one of the troubling feature of modern pluralist politics – the ability of monopolistic tendencies to thrive in a democratic setting. Examples from Turkey to Scotland show how true this is when a governing party is shaped and driven by ideological fervour and an often bellicose leader.  

Nationalism, or more accurately, secessionism, defines Scotland’s ruling party. It has neglected essential tasks of government to use it instead as a campaigning front, applying the machinery of the state to try and secure its objectives. By comparison, duties that preoccupied Salazar, above all financial viability and ensuring that the national infrastructure was modernised and well-maintained, don’t really count as SNP priorities. It has chosen two successive leaders who have ventilated this ideological zeal and passion to powerful effect, creating an atmosphere of fervour in a divided country  that bears more relation to the Middle East or Latin America in former times than to Europe.

Nicola Sturgeon has combined this fervour in seeking to sever the British link with a zeal for social engineering. While public infrastructure and essential services have faced relentless decline, she has shown no qualms about using the state to have a central role in the lives of her citizens.  Whereas an Italian fascist party visitor in 1934 could note that the Portuguese regime left people alone to lead their own lives and did not compel them to ‘participate in the life of the state’, this is no longer the case in Scotland. Only a huge outcry recently prevented the SNP imposing a system of state guardianship for children, undercutting the role of parents.

Media allies of the ruling party  have been used as tools to enable highly personalised propaganda for the ruling party to affect children.  Thus in May, near the  height of the Covid emergency, the supposedly independent Scottish Television company put out a video which said: ‘The children of Scotland would like to say thank you to Nicola, our First Minister. We are so grateful, thank you for always keeping us safe, working so hard for being strong for us. Thank you for...always thinking about the children of Scotland. Thank you, Nicola’. 

Another outcry led to this video being pulled after a few hours.

Except in economic affairs Salazar disliked such an obtrusive state. One of the reasons he was opposed to competing parties was he saw them as engines of agitation which would disrupt society and reduce the level of personal freedom in important practical ways.

He and Sturgeon possess traits in common – enormous will-power and a belief they are both indispensable for the present and future welfare of the nation.

But Salazar saw himself as the servant of the nation, someone ready to give full account to posterity of the work he had carried out on its behalf.

He kept scrupulous written records of nearly all aspects of his rule and they have been gathered together at the state archives where anyone can inspect them.  By contrast, Sturgeon seems altogether contemptuous about keeping written records of her deeds. During key points in the Covid-19 emergency, she herself admitted none were being kept about how she arrived at making decisions. 

The suspicion is she fears a light being shed on her conduct because it may turn out to be far less heroic than she has wished it to be portrayed via her daily press conferences.

Records reveal that Salazar preferred to conciliate potential foes rather than turn them into enemies.  He was a good motivator and had enough self-confidence to gather around him in his governing team people who did not always agree with the direction he wanted to go in. Sturgeon by contrast appears more autocratic. She very much is in command of government and, remarkably, it is her husband, Peter Murrell who has run the party for many years.  She prefers a homogeneous support team who do not challenge her even when she takes a radical view on issues to do with gender and sexuality. Her methods in deflecting potential challenges to her authority are strong-arm ones. The fact she was instrumental in ensuring that incidences of sexual impropriety in public service could be investigated retrospectively, resulted in her predecessor Alex Salmond facing trial on sexual abuse charges in early 2020. He was cleared of the charges and Sturgeon claims she had no rule in framing her predecessor just as Salazar insisted he had not ordered the secret police to ambush and kill his chief opposition foe General Humberto Delgado in 1965.

Salazar usually preferred  to use the velvet glove rather than the iron fist against opponents except if they were communists. He was careful not to provoke strife with potential rivals. Towards Spain with whom Portugal had often enjoyed acrimonious ties, Salazar was wary, pursuing a transactional rather than warm relationship with General Franco.

The Portuguese autocrat would have been amazed at the way Sturgeon has rarely wasted an opportunity to goad London. He was a doughty defender of Portugal’s national interest but he never sought to antagonise others for no good reason. Threatening to impose quarantines on visitors from England which supplies a much-needed economic lifeline for Scotland would likely have been seen as bellicose and irrational by the canny and temperate leader.

There are too many facsimiles of Sturgeon to be found in the politics of the world in 2020 to make writing her biography an absorbing task. Melodramatic politicians who rule through provocative stances, neglecting everyday tasks of governance, are not hard to spot on both the main coasts of the USA and in the Middle East and South Asia. Salazar was an autocrat who fled from militancy and confrontation and ruled through political agility rather than force or bombast. I obviously have no means of knowing but I suspect he will remain an object of interest for historians long into the future whereas Nicola Sturgeon is quite likely to be consigned to obscurity.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar which was published on 23 July.

Photo of Antonio salazar by unknown author -, Public Domain,


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