by Larry Peery

“I don’t think there will be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime.”

— BBC, 3/5/73


William Manchester called Winston Churchill “The Last Lion.” If that’s true, than Margaret Thatcher was “The Last Lioness.” BBC polls have consistently rated Churchill as the greatest Englishman of the last century or even of all time. The take on Thatcher is a bit different. One British tabloid summed it up nicely, “Margaret Thatcher is lionized and lambasted. Indifference was not an option.”

Churchill was the most admired of recent British politicians, and rightly so, but we shouldn’t forget that in his own time Churchill had his critics and was forced out of office more than once. People forget or prefer not to remember that during the 1930s and even as late as 1940, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt was terribly popular or successful at home. Margaret Thatcher on the other hand was, perhaps the most loathed British politician of the last century and rightly so according to some. But we shouldn’t forget that in her own time Thatcher had her supporters and was only forced out of office once — at the end. Ironically, Churchill’s greatest foreign disaster was over the Dardanelles, a naval battle. Thatcher’s greatest triumph was over the Falklands, also a naval battle.

“You know, if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything, wouldn’t you, at any time? And you would achieve nothing!”

— Interview for Press Association, 5/3/89

The Great Question

For years I have pondered the following question, “Are great dippers or Dippers born or made?” Or perhaps some combination of both? There’s little doubt that Churchill was born to greatness. He chose to use his gifts as a writer, politician and eventually statesman. Thatcher, on the other hand, was definitely from and made by the middle class and proud of it. She was the personification of “the nation of shopkeepers” that Napoleon couldn’t defeat. She was a business person trying to run a country, and the world, in a businesslike way. Even her greatest foreign policy triumphs showed this, as when she said after meeting Gorbachev, “We can do business together.”

Thatcher was the quintessential diplomat and would have made the perfect Dipper. If you read her accounts or watch videos of her meetings with Reagan or Gorbachev you can see that she was no ordinary woman competing in a man’s world. Instead she was a bag lady who hand bagged her way to the pinnacles of power on her own terms, and hung on to it through three general elections and a decade as prime minster, first minister, and primus inter pares, although while she was first there were no seconds allowed. The only comparable figure in Diplomacy history I can think of is Kathy Byrne Caruso.

Playing The Great Game

As Dippers we could learn much from studying Thatcher’s approach to diplomacy. Her diplomacy world was highly structured and organized, although it didn’t always appear that way. At its center were a few key alliances based on bilateral relationships, chief of which was the Anglo-American “special relationship” Churchill saw it coming and couldn’t prevent the shift in that alliance from one first dominated by the UK to one increasingly dominated by the USA. The costs of WWII for Britain, the disaster of the 1956 Suez Crisis, and the sidelining of the UK in the US-USSR SALT talks drove the point home that that alliance, although still a special one, was no longer one between equals. At times Thatcher leaned toward the USA, at others toward Germany, or even France; always trying to preserve Britain’s second position in the alliance. The same thing happens in Diplomacy as two-way alliances shift with the change in the balance of power.

Multilateral alliances, such as NATO, also have their shifting balances, as the fortunes of individual members change. Originally dominated by the USA, with the UK and France as junior primary partners, today NATO is dominated by the USA and Germany; and Turkey’s role has increased as other partners have declined. For years Thatcher used a combination of carrots and sticks to try and win her way with the EU, but was unable to over-come the ever stronger tide of European unification.

“We fought to show that aggression does not pay and that the robber cannot be allowed to get away with his swag. We fought with the support of so many throughout the world… Yet we also fought alone.”

— 7/3/82, on Falkland Islands War

Every power or alliance needs “The Enemy,” whether it’s the Soviet Union, China, Jihadists, or Terrorists. The Enemy is the raison d’etre that gives an alliance a purpose. Without a purpose the alliance dies. SEATO and CENTO are two good examples of that. Thatcher, like so many others, found that if you didn’t have an enemy the next best thing was to create a potential one. Again, we see this all the time in Diplomacy.

“It pays to know the enemy — not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.”

The Downing Street Years, 9/8/83

The enemy will also have his allies and alliances. Much effort goes into destroying such allies or alliances. A good example that Thatcher was involved in (along with the USA) was the break-up of the WTO and Soviet Union. Instead of confronting the Soviet Union directly the two western powers used their labor unions and the Vatican as go-betweens to bring down Poland first, which essentially forced the Soviets to abandon their position in East Germany and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rogue countries, whether its pre-WWI Serbia or today’s North Korea, are always a potential threat to the status quo and the balance of power. We don’t often think of them as existing in Diplomacy but any unoccupied supply center or one or two unit power has the potential to cause problems for other players in The Great Game. Thatcher had to deal with these rogues in Bosnia, South Africa, and Hong Kong.


My hope is that you won’t try to imitate Thatcher’s style of diplomacy but that it will serve as an inspiration for you in your own Diplomacy games.

A Personal Note

1988 was the year George Herbert Walker Bush ran against Michael Dukakis for president in the USA. On paper Bush looked better, but I wasn’t impressed. I was even less impressed with Dukakis. With that campaign going on I headed to Birmingham, England for the first World DipCon. By then I was already a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but I found that many of the Brits, especially among the Dippers, didn’t care for her or her economic policies. During a lull in the Con I talked with a BBC reporter who was covering the event and curious as to why an American had come all the way to the UK to play Diplomacy. A thirty second sound bite led to a request for an extended televised interview the following day. During the interview I mentioned my admiration for Thatcher and her handling of the Falklands situation and compared her favorably to Bush and Dukakis. Perhaps the way I put it wasn’t the most diplomatic, but it was provocative enough to make the BBC news that night. What I said was, “It’s a pity Thatcher can’t come over and run for president of the USA. After all she’s got more balls than either Bush or Dukakis.” I was told later that when she was told what I said she laughed, and ever since when I’ve gone back to the UK I’ve been introduced as the man who bragged about Thatcher’s balls.

In 1993 Thatcher came to San Diego as part of her American book promotion tour. I was of 900 autograph seekers who turned out at the bookstore for her signing; and the following day I got a chance to hear her address the local Rotary Club. She was lovely, very poised and dignified. And, according to one of my friends who worked at the hotel where she stayed, she asked for three fingers of Glenlivet Scotch whiskey in a Waterford glass before dinner and and another before retiring for the night.

Additional Information

  • The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, William Manchester
  • The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940, William Manchester
  • The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, William Manchester & Paul Reid
  • The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher
  • The Path to Power, Margaret Thatcher
  • Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, Margaret Thatcher

The three volumes Manchester set is as close to a definitive biography of Churchill as we are likely to see. Behind it are the 43 or so volumes of Churchill’s own writings, and enough books about him to fill a good sized library. The two Thatcher books published to date (I believe a third one is due out next year.) are a good memoir, with all the pros and cons of that genre. Statecraft is a good over view of her foreign policy. You Tube has numerous videos of the Churchill funeral in 1965, and C-SPAN has a three hour video of the Thatcher funeral earlier this year; two very similar yet very different events.

The Manchester biography follows a chronological format, and three-fourths of the book is devoted to the WWII years. The Thatcher memoirs do the same, with an emphasis on the Cold War years, but Statecraft uses a thematic approach, which might be more interesting to Dippers. The same themes and subjects often appear in both albeit under different labels. The Statecraft chapter headings are: Cold War Reflections, The American Achievement, The Russian Enigma, Asian Values, Asian Giants, Rogues, Religions and Terrorism; Human Rights and Wrongs, Balkan Wars, Europe — Dreams and Nightmares, Britain and Europe — Time to Renegotiate, Capitalism and its Critics; all topics Churchill had to deal with in his time.

Those who have read Charles Vopicka’s 1921 Secrets of the Balkans and compare it with Churchill and Thatcher’s writing on the same subject, or who have read Baron Tanaka’s 1930 The Tanaka Memorial and compare it with Churchill and Thatcher’s writings, or even today’s headlines, will not be surprised at their similarities.

Larry Peery

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