Brighton’s cameo in Lisbon’s revolution

Portuguese socialists celebrate the the 25th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of Windsor is the oldest international agreement, anywhere, that is still in force. While there have been wars between England and France and England and Spain, there have been none between this country and Portugal. Friendly relations have endured for centuries. Even bottles of port all seem to have English names (Graham’s, Taylor, Dow, and so on). It is fitting, therefore, that Brighton has a particular place in Portugal’s history.

The Treaty was already 420 years old when the Prince Regent built in 1808 what was later to become the Brighton Dome. The future George IV could not have known, of course, that his stables would be sold off by his niece, Queen Victoria, to become a concert venue. Nor could he have known, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the venue would much later have a walk-on part in Western Europe’s last revolution, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.

In 1974 the converted stables got its biggest gig: hosting the Eurovision Song Contest after the original hosts, Luxembourg, pulled out. Of the 17 entrants that year, six were sung in English, and included Olivia Newton-John (for the UK) and, making their debut, a little-known Swedish foursome called ABBA.

Brighton Dome, venue of the 1974 Eurovision song contest – and the unlikely seed of the Carnation Revolution. Photo credit: Tony Hisgett / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Portugal’s entry was set to be sung last-but-one. Its position and timing in the programme is a matter of folklore back home, for the start of the song was the signal rebels had set upon to begin the overthrow of their government in a bloodless coup.

Going under the sinister name of Estado Novo (the New State), Portugal had been governed by a dictatorship since 1926. Its principal architect was the unlikely figure of António de Oliveira Salazar, a technocratic university economics professor. Taking over an impoverished nation, Salazar set about the total re-organisation of the Portuguese economy and society. While GDP grew over the next four decades (averaging 5 to 7 percent from 1960 to 1973), so did political repression.

The New State was not a fascist dictatorship like Mussolini’s Italy or Nazi Germany. Nor was it in the same mould as Franco’s Spain. Portugal espoused an entirely new political system. It eschewed what Salazar described as fascism’s ‘pagan’ elements, and gave prominence to the Catholic Church and ‘the family’.

To get an idea of how repressive the government was, look no further than the fact that the human rights organisation Amnesty International was founded because of the jailing, in Portugal, of two students for the crime of merely raising a toast to ‘freedom’.

It wasn’t just at home that the New State was repressive. By 1974, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, and Macau were still all governed from Lisbon. The New State had been doubling down on colonialism since 1945 instead of preparing for an orderly imperial retreat. Portuguese peasants were encouraged to emigrate to the colonies as late as the 1960s to boost the European population there and take advantage of racist employment laws. Forced labour of Africans was still practised until the 1950s, and extractive industries benefiting Portugal flourished. In 1960 and 1961, India marched into Goa and other enclaves on the subcontinent, ousting the Portuguese colonisers. But in its African colonies, Portugal was hanging on and fighting wars of independence it could ill afford.

At home, in 1974, resistance to the government grew. Like so many dictatorships, the New State was running out of steam and was being drained by its colonial wars. The 1973 publication of a book called ‘Portugal e o futuro’ (‘Portugal and the Future’), by a decorated war hero, spurred the calls for revolutionary change and lit the fuse.

A plot was formed by army officers to launch a coup against the regime on 25 April 1974. At 10.55pm, Portugal’s Eurovision entry was broadcast on national radio. The contest itself had taken place in Brighton three weeks earlier, with Portuguese listeners getting a recording, but that was the signal for the coup to begin. By the morning, troops were on the streets, some with carnations in the muzzles of their rifles, giving the revolt the moniker ‘the Carnation Revolution’. The dictatorship crumbled with hardly any resistance. Since 1974, Portugal’s fortunes have risen markedly. Civil and political rights were quickly established.

A sustained period of strong growth and improvements in health and educational outcomes resulted from joining the EEC with Spain in 1986. From being a human rights’ pariah state, Portugal’s politicians have gone on to become leaders on the world stage. In 2004, former prime minister José Manuel Barroso became president of the European Commission and, in 2017, Barroso’s predecessor as premier, António Guterres, was sworn-in as Secretary General of the United Nations. With Greece’s overthrow of military government the same year, and Spain’s Franco in the last year of his life, 1974 was a portentous year for European democracy. But it is the Carnation Revolution that surely deserves a special place in the hearts of Brighton and all Sussex. As, of course, do ABBA.

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