Inspired by my recent visit to a Russia that was far more laid back and cosmopolitan than when I last visited, back in the dying days of communism, I began reading the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya's "Russian Diary". Her diary casts a pall over post-communist Russia, as she reveals the increasing levels of corruption and the authoritarianised 'democracy' that Russia now has in place. Opposition becomes a rarely heard voice, limited to a few brave souls risking life and limb to criticise the policies of the Dear Leader, Comrade Putin himself. He may have inherited the ashes of the communist state, but he has been happy to learn his political lessons from Lenin and Stalin, this former director of the FSB. Politkovskaya is relentless in her expose of the inadequacies and harshness of the Russian political system, and equally damning of the wretchedly inadequate opposition. Not surprisingly, hers was a lonely voice, and also not surprisingly, she was murdered in 2006. Opposition in Russia is a dangerous business.
Opposition in the UK, meanwhile, seems almost too ridiculously easy, which does beg the question of why some of Cameron's team struggle to make hits (Michael Gove, for example, was universally seen to have missed an open goal in his questions to the Stalinist sounding Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families yesterday). This is not to suggest that the opposition in Britain has a task any less important than that pursued by the late Anna Politkovskaya. They may be far from risking their lives, but they still have a duty to expose the inadequacies and failings of the government. It's their job, after all. But where Politkovskaya was pursuing a ruthless and highly efficient government machine, the more one reads of Gordon Brown the more one is tempted to the view that he took his political lessons from Coco the Clown.
We are only on Tuesday, and already the Prime Minister has been snubbed by the president of Pakistan, admonished by the Prime Minister of Poland, and had to withdraw his hasty and ill thought out attempt to save parliamentary face over the increasingly embarrassing MPs' expenses affair. This after a week with a budget that has seen his polling figures plunge. The budget itself contained a supremely cynical measure - the 50% top rate of tax - that was designed to cause trouble for the Tories, but has instead generated unrest within his own party. Stephen Byers and Charles Clarke have openly condemned it, Frank Field has tabled a motion demanding a coherent strategy to balance the budget, and Tony Blair's murmurings are becoming ever louder. Even Brown's attempts at communication to the youtube generation have been met with ribaldry.
Gordon Brown waited and plotted impatiently for ten years to reach the top spot. While waiting, he controlled the British economy unchallenged and hamstrung Tony Blair's domestic agenda as much as possible. His decline now is far worse than that of his wretched Tory predecessor John Major, with whom he is all too often compared. Major was a relative newcomer who inherited a disunited party, whose legitimacy was put in doubt by the Thatcherites who opposed him, and whose constructive engagement in Europe tore a fault line in the party. He twice won election amongst his peers to the party leadership, and won a general election in his own right. Brown, meanwhile, as he fumbles ever more ferociously around his Downing Street bunker, has never won an election in his own right - not even the Labour leadership. What is worse, as the most powerful and long-lasting Chancellor since the war, he cannot claim to be the victim of circumstance. Everything pointed in the right direction for him, from his crowning as Labour leader (his acolytes - men like Damian McBride - had crushed the opposition) to his unprecedented experience of operating the levers of government.
Political careers, said Enoch Powell, all end in failure, and his is a salutary commentary on Gordon Brown. But Gordon Brown's premiership is also a salutary lesson for British politics generally. He evinces all the desires of an authoritarian leader - a would-be Putin. Fortunately for his country, the entrenchment of liberal democracy merely makes him the target of a rising tide of derisory criticism. Opposition to Brown requires no heroism at all, and perhaps it is this that the ghost of Anna Politkovskaya will look upon with a wry smile of regret.