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22 January 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 11:34am

The Lisbon lament: Britain’s oldest ally on the eve of Brexit

Once a backward country in the grip of a grim dictatorship, Portugal has become a hot spot for tech migrants, surfers, foodies and yoga gurus, with a popular socialist prime minister.

By Matthew Engel

In the wood-panelled tasting room at the HQ of Cockburn’s Port (which, as you might know from the old adverts, is pronounced Co-burns), a charming Eton-educated young man called Rob Symington (in this case pronounced Simmington) was explaining the intricacies of his family business.

Everything about this experience seemed thoroughly British right down to the complexities of pronunciation. But beyond the high and ancient stone walls of the Cockburn’s compound, the scene was wholly continental. The narrow street ran precipitously down to the wharves of the River Douro. Across the water was the gaily painted hugger-mugger waterfront of Oporto, with the domes and towers of the city above.

Symington himself was a living embodiment of Britain’s links with the continent from which it is now extracting itself. He is also the embodiment of the most remarkable link of all: between Britain and its “oldest ally”. He is a fifth-generation Symington as far as this business is concerned and inextricably Anglo-Portuguese. But his great-great-grandfather arrived to plant vineyards in the Douro Valley only in 1882.

The first Cockburn (whose descendants sold up in 1962) had got here just after Waterloo. The port trade with Britain dates back to 1652. Yet the whole Portuguese wine business is like last week’s start-up when measured against the Anglo-Portuguese alliance. Its founding document is the Treaty of Windsor, signed by Richard II and João I in 1386. And even that was a formalisation of links that date back at least 200 years earlier.

This history is hardly known in Britain. Another Etonian, then the foreign secretary, got into a complete Thick of It-style pickle on a visit to Lisbon in 2018 by knowing the first thing about Anglo-Portuguese relations but nothing else. (It’s all on YouTube.) It’s different in Portugal. Every schoolchild is expected to know such details as the Methuen Treaty (1703) and the Ultimatum (1890), a blip in the bromance when the countries’ colonial interests clashed in Africa.

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Britain prevailed, of course. It’s that kind of relationship. When India annexed the Portuguese enclave of Goa in 1961, Britain shrugged. But, come the Falklands War, Portugal dutifully came onside. Brothers, yes, but the bigger brother prevails. Think of the “Special Relationship” (and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, duh).

But the logic of the alliance has not gone away. Portugal has always needed to fend off Spain, which has generally been cosy with France. It is both a historical fluke and a product of the alliance that Portugal shook off the Castilian empire forever nearly 400 years ago, and Catalonia, for instance, did not.

Portugal, with its single land border, unsurprisingly has a prickly kind of friendship with its neighbour. There it is, tucked away in Spain’s pouch like a baby kangaroo. An often overbearing neighbour, they would say. “The Spanish are in your face. The Portuguese give you space,” sums up the Hispanic scholar Carmen Ramos Villar of Sheffield University. And she quoted an old Portuguese proverb: “From Spain, you never get a good wind or a good marriage.”

“The Spanish think we’re like Nordics,” says Miguel Vale de Almeida, anthropologist, radical activist and former MP. “That we don’t make noise, we have dinner early, we don’t go out and drink. Sometimes they say it’s the British influence. It’s not, but we are Atlantic, not Mediterranean.” Portuguese reticence is supposedly linked to the national characteristic of saudade, often translated as melancholy, which in turn is linked to the national folk music, fado, a tradition full of broken hearts.

“We learn from an early age that being sad is part of life, like being happy,” says Rogerio Puga, an expert in Anglo-Portuguese Studies at Nova University, Lisbon. “We don’t sing to be drama queens or slash our wrists. It’s not about being depressed. And fado is not just for tourists, it’s a very important part of the culture.” (Oddly, the Portuguese best known to the British, Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho, are not reticent at all.)


For the Portuguese who are not football aristocracy, there is reason for sadness. Its explorers discovered the world; it had the makings of a great empire. But this has long been a country of poverty and backwardness, emigration and exile. Its brief and chaotic first iteration as a democratic republic (1910-26) was succeeded by 48 years of dictatorship, 36 of them under the interminable António Salazar.

José Valadas, a retired court of appeal judge, is a New Statesman subscriber of 63 years standing. He grew up under Salazar (the magazine had to be sent in a plain brown wrapper) and was briefly jailed for subversion in the then colony of Angola. “It was a very particular dictatorship,” he recalls. “Salazar was not a Nazi. He didn’t like crowds. He didn’t like making speeches. And he lived like a monk. He was a very honest man in terms of material things. But he didn’t spend money on the country either. Not education, not health, not transport. It was terrible. Everything was censored. And the secret police were everywhere.”

Salazar skilfully kept Portugal neutral in the Second World War, tacking towards the winners, which was probably more useful to Britain than any other option. And it was not the worst mid-20th century tyranny. Throughout his rule, dissidents, like the quarry in Portuguese bullfighting, were not normally killed, just tormented and sometimes tortured. And no one ever checked what was inside Valadas’s plain brown wrapper.

But poverty was in places extreme and the literacy rates pathetic; wives could not leave the country without their husbands’ permission; and in the African colonies, conditions were often tantamount to slavery. “It was like a country frozen in time,” says Vale de Almeida. With only Francoist Spain and the wild Atlantic for company.

The regime’s props were the Catholic Church, the army, a tight-knit capitalist oligarchy and, after the war, the Americans – the underground opposition was communist-led and thus unacceptable. But, after 1968, under the slightly reformist rule of Salazar’s heir Marcello Caetano, the dictatorship and economy began to falter: long-running colonial revolts in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique were brutally but ineptly countered and refused to go away. The total death toll was probably well over 100,000. By April 1974, discontent was growing.

José Valadas was then serving as a provincial criminal court judge. On the 25th of the month his wife woke him to say there had been a coup. He assumed the generals were taking charge to impose order. “Let me sleep,” he wailed, “let me sleep!” Then he heard the radio playing a long-banned song and began to realise: it was the junior officers, the troops and the populace who were in control.

Surf’s up: the underwater canyon off the coast of Nazaré helps produce waves of “matchless ferocity”. Credit: Stefan Matzke – Sampics/Corbis via Getty

What emerged was amazing. An almost bloodless revolution (four dead); an embrace of liberal democracy, not communism, and huge improvements in education, health and infrastructure. From almost total isolation – with an even worse dictatorship as its only neighbour – Portugal emerged with remarkably few false moves into the modern world; 25 April, the Dia da Liberdade, says Miguel Vale de Almeida, now hardly has any political connotations. Everyone comes out and does their own thing. Like the Fourth of July, democracy is a given.

But the causes of fado have not gone away. Middle-sized English towns do not have Portuguese shops alongside Polish ones because the locals insist on salted cod. When the financial crisis hit and Portugal was derided as the first of the “PIIGS” – Europe’s basket cases, along with Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain – emigration resumed with a vengeance. And even now, average pay is the lowest in western Europe, by a street, without low prices to match.

Nearly half a century on from the revolution, the Portuguese are now thoroughly worldly and at ease. Walking around Lisbon, one might almost imagine oneself somewhere Nordic. Except for the weather and a preference for form over function. For instance: the pavements are cobbled, a gleamy, creamy colour in Lisbon, a more northerly brown in Oporto. Very attractive, but undulating, with hidden ridges and dips, and absolutely lethal when wet, especially on a downhill stretch. Countries benefit from a single defining phrase: the Emerald Isle; Land of the Free; Land of the Rising Sun. This is the Land of the Broken Ankle.

Though Portugal looks outward, the world has not looked much to Portugal. Journalists have not flocked here since the disappearance of the three-year-old British toddler Madeleine McCann 13 years ago, which was not an advert for local efficiency.

Yet the country is worth our attention. There is just a single right-wing populist MP. Its drugs policy is one of the world’s least stupid. The Socialist Party government has no overall majority but its leader António Costa does skilful deals and has ended austerity; his personal stature seems to match Tony Blair circa 2001. Right now it is one of the few governments anywhere likely to win the general approbation of Valadas’s beloved New Statesman.

In this phase, Lisbon is becoming a hotspot for footloose tech-minded migrants, who it welcomes to counter the emigration and a low birth rate: Sydney without the jetlag and the smug self-satisfaction. (Come summer, Portugal gets its own bushfires.) Property prices and tourist numbers are booming. These bring their own problems.


Lisbon’s wood-panelled 28 tram is a relic, like the San Francisco cable cars, and just like them it still has some practicality on steep stretches. But the usefulness is secondary to the charm, and the local passengers are outnumbered by the tourists.

As the 28 lurches past the Alfama district, the more energetic visitors hop off and wander into the tiny Moorish lanes where the working classes have lived in picturesque and sociable penury since the millennium before last. And of course as more visitors come, more old corner shops get replaced by ice-cream parlours and more old ladies get evicted to make way for Air BnBs. Money is made and the place becomes a dead zone.

Eighty miles up the coast, a similar process is under way in the little seaside town of Nazaré. Due to a deep underwater canyon that ends just offshore, the Atlantic rollers here have a matchless ferocity. These waves used to be a source of fear rather than wealth. If surfers even knew about the place, they shied away. Then in 2011, a Hawaiian-based surfer called Garrett McNamara turned up and successfully rode a 78-foot wave, a world record. In 2017 the Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa set a new record of 80 feet. There is talk of a hundred. And if it happened, it would be here. This is seriously dangerous, but the glory is enticing.

Thrilling to watch too. In early January, hundreds were out by the lighthouse on the headland watching a dozen or so of the elite tackle waves ranging from 20 to 25 feet, which were awesome enough. They have to be towed out by jet-skis, not least so someone can rescue them if necessary.

I was transfixed: the kindly winter sun, the balletic movement, the mighty ocean, the rainbows forming in the spray of the jet-skis, the risk. And suddenly, Nazaré, which dozed peacefully between brief summer seasons, is an all-year resort. For better and worse. “We were just a small fishing village,” moaned one local to me. And they worked in the tourist office.

Far inland, something else is happening. The countryside is emptying as the young seek better opportunities in the city and abroad – a phenomenon that is happening across southern Europe. But there is a difference here. Though cities are getting increasingly expensive, farms are cheap, and are being snapped up by “alternative types” from northern Europe to open yoga retreats, I was told.

I assumed yoga was used to signify a generic caricature, like muesli. It was much more specific than that. One website now lists 324 different yoga retreats in Portugal. And so the world churns.

The phase of the Brexit shemozzle now concluding has contained much talk about the difference between “somewhere people” and “nowhere people”. In a funny way, Rob Symington is the epitome of both: at home in both Portugal and Britain, yet steeped in a family tradition as deeply as any peasant.

Brexit is not necessarily traumatic for the Symington family’s vineyards and port brands, but it’s a worry – both because of the deal the UK may not do with the EU and the deals it may do with other wine-producing countries that could shift the competitive advantage. The locals, if anything, are taking it worse. “The Portuguese think it’s a disaster,” says Symington. “They can’t understand it.”

“The relationship has always been bittersweet. But there is a fascination with Britain. We still learn British English,” says Rogerio Puja of Nova University. “And we know that Brexit weakens the EU. We need strong critical countries so that we are not governed by one view of Europe.”

On 1 February, very little will seem different except that the EU flag will have to be removed from the front of the British Embassy. It would be nice to believe that Portugal will still bend over backwards to help its old ally for another millennium, and not just in the yoga classes. 

Read more of Matthew Engel’s “Lost Continent” series at

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This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people