October 20, 2015
For various complicated reasons, I now have a flat in Vauxhall. I remember the area around Fentiman Road from thirty years ago as containing a spattering of MPs. Returning now I discover it to be newly fashionable with the development of Nine Elms, the arrival of the US Embassy and the final development of Battersea Power Station. What I had failed to notice is that the area around Vauxhall is largely Portuguese. Portuguese restaurants, Portuguese shops, streets such as Wilcox Road where the predominant language is Portuguese not English, nestling in the centre of this vast metropolis thousands of Portuguese have created a “Little Portugal” where the news from Lisbon takes precedence over the news from Westminster just across the river. As it happens I have had a long and happy relationship with Portugal, my only experience of being fired at in anger came during the Portuguese Revolution when I and Carl Bildt posed as Marxist students sent out by stranded international observers to discover who was besieging the CDS Conference in Porto. We eventually found the Communist Party headquarters from which the rioters were being directed and reported back, bringing international attention to the situation. However we then attempted a second dive into the riot only to find ourselves being charged by mounted police loyal to the old regime who would have been unimpressed by the Marxist literature in our pockets. The combination of extreme wealth and extreme poverty under the old regime was extraordinary. Portugal had the highest per capita ownership of Lamborghinis anywhere in the world, even if before the EU paid for a motorway system they had nowhere to drive them. I recall a friend who was an aide to the outgoing president. He wrote me a series of moving letters during the course of the revolution, detailing how the mob had broken into one of the family’s castles in the south and ending up with the plaintive cry “they have even taken my uncle’s bus company”. It turned out to be the Portuguese National Bus Company!
Portugal is too often lumped with the Mediterranean South, but it is best thought of as an Atlantic global culture. Even its complex corruption is tempered by Atlantic breezes. It is a nation comfortable with its history. It achieved with relative ease the metropolitan blow back of empire. It is said in Brazil that money whitens the skin. Portugal is more at ease with questions of race than any other country in Europe, which is not to say that it has forgotten its history. I recall standing on the Lines of Torres Vedras while a Portuguese friend looked north and talked of the seven hundred years of the Reconquista. On subsequent visits to Morocco one could see how artificial is the distinction between Europe and Africa on this Western coast.
The Portuguese are a gentle and determined people, hard-working, but keen on body building. They are realistic and unsentimental about those things that matter in life – land, tradition, friends.
My closest friend in the European Parliament was Portuguese. Carlos Pimenta was made Minister of the Environment aged twenty seven towards the end of the revolution. He learned of his appointment while listening to the radio over breakfast one morning. A fearless opponent of corruption, he bulldozed the illegal houses that had been built in National Parks and he ended Portugal’s nuclear industry. I served on the Portuguese Accession Committee of the European Parliament. As soon as the Portuguese arrived Carlos threw himself into the creation of a European Environment Policy. Sadly for Europe, he retreated with his Australian second wife to Portugal and dedicated himself into developing a business built around alternative energy. It is often said that Portugal is England’s oldest ally, dating back to the Treaty of Windsor in 1215. One thing is certain, when the Referendum on British membership is finally upon us I will want Carlos beside me in Little Portugal campaigning to keep Britain in the European Union.Author : Tom Spencer