Dictator of Downing St

Tony Blair does not have rivals murdered, nor is Belmarsh the Gulag, but Robert Service, Stalin's bi

At the end of the Second World War Joseph Stalin made, for him, an extraordinary statement. In the summer of 1941 he had tossed away intelligence reports that Adolf Hitler was about to invade the USSR. He thought them some sort of trick to inveigle him into entering the European conflict. German armed forces therefore crossed the Soviet frontier unopposed at dawn on 22 June. It was the greatest military catastrophe of the 20th century, and it very nearly produced victory for the Nazi New Order in Europe. On 24 May 1945 Stalin announced: "Our government made many mistakes . . . Another people would have said to the government: 'You have not justified our expectations, so go away and we'll establish another government that will conclude a peace with Germany and secure relief for us.'"

This coy, almost chatty semi-apology is not the only thing about Stalin that finds a parallel in Tony Blair. In the broader span of Stalin's life, there is the same phenomenon of a leader coming to power carrying the weighty hopes of his followers. The Communist Party after Lenin's death was riddled with factional dispute. Many activists feared that one of the contenders for the succession, Leon Trotsky, was a dangerous egomaniac who would abandon communism altogether and, with the help of the Red Army, dig the grave of the October revolution. Stalin, by contrast, had the reputation of being a modest, solid member of the ascendant leadership. He was as yet loath, unlike Trotsky, to claim any originality in Marxist doctrine. He quietly smoked a pipe while listening to the grievances of comrades at party gatherings. It was remembered that Lenin, in his deathbed testament, had warned the party against Stalin as well as Trotsky. But Stalin's steady management of affairs in the ensuing years had induced amnesia. He appeared to most party officials in Moscow and the provinces to be "one of us".

Stalin's policies and political behaviour were not the only features that commended him before his ascent to supreme power in 1928. He was also liked and admired for his sociability. He sang at parties. He was sweet-natured with children and dandled his own and those of his in-laws on his knee. He told tall tales, especially about his days of exile in Siberia when - according to himself - he outdid the local Ostyaks in his prowess as a fisherman. He was a brilliant mimic despite the heavily accented Russian pronunciation of a Georgian. He was considerate to his entourage. Like Lenin, he sent his cronies off to sanatoriums whenever he thought their health required it. He ensured that they had comfortable dachas in the Moscow countryside. He had a literary hinterland, loving Georgian epic poetry as well as the prose of Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Stalin's followers made a terrible misjudgement. Having defeated Trotsky and sent him into exile in Kazakhstan in 1928, Stalin initiated a drastic change of direction. Economic compromise with the peasantry was tossed aside and rural households were dragooned into collective farms. Famine and cannibalism were widespread in Ukraine by 1932. The workers' conditions also worsened. Wages were held low so that state revenues might be saved for the purchase of high-grade technology and expertise from abroad. The Gulag network of labour camps became a crucial sector of the expanding economy. Show trials of long-defunct anti-communist parties were held, and Stalin even invented the existence of new parties and brought their alleged members to the dock. His own "cult" was strengthened. Not a word of criticism of the great leader was permitted.

Eventually, in the Great Terror of 1937-38, most of the leading supporters of Stalin in the 1920s paid the ultimate price for their misjudgement of him. With his terrifying accomplice Nikolai Yezhov, he arrested, tortured and killed them without compunction. Just a few of his cronies survived. These lucky ones were themselves traumatised, knowing that at any moment he might remove them, too, from the political scene.

In the civil war after October 1917 Stalin had distinguished himself by his brutality. One of his favourite devices in Petrograd in 1919 was to stage-manage the public mass execution of prisoners of war. He appalled Lenin by reckless military decisions that led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers. As a commissar in Moscow and on the fronts he was forever in conflict with comrades. Prickly and ambitious, he several times handed in his resignation rather than obey Kremlin orders. In 1918 he had written to Lenin: "For the good of the cause I need full military powers . . . In this case I myself without formalities will overthrow those commanders and commissars who are ruining the cause. That's how I'm being nudged by the interests of the cause and . . . the absence of a scrap of paper from Trotsky won't stop me."

His Communist Party followers in the 1920s had themselves soaked their hands in blood. The brutalisation of attitudes and behaviour was not the exclusive work of Stalin, but derived from the collective decisions on dictatorship and terror involving nearly all of them. "Soft" communists such as Nikolai Bukharin and Lev Kamenev, who would both be executed in the 1930s after show trials, had merely urged a moderation of the Red Terror in the civil war. They were not opponents of state terrorism as such. This deep and permanent hallowing of extreme violence for political ends blinded party leaders to Stalin being a thug of an order entirely different from that of other Kremlin inhabitants.

The defects of Stalin's character and policies were revealed to them in a homicidal saga across the 1930s. Tony Blair has not made the cellars of Belmarsh Prison stream with the blood of innocent detainees. He is not even solely responsible for the movement towards British involvement in the Iraq war. No doubt, firm words of persuasion were used to keep some of his associates in line with his wishes. Certainly, there have been thousands of Iraqi deaths since the announcement of the end of military hostilities in the summer of last year - and the number of fatalities among British servicemen will continue to rise as UK forces become deployed in the Fallujah operation. But it would be entirely ludicrous to suggest that Blair and Stalin, as exercisers of the might of the state in pursuit of political and personal goals, are in the same category.

This caveat, however, is not the end of the matter. A common phenomenon can be detected in the techniques used by both men once they attained the seat of supreme power. Stalin, too, had little time for cabinet-style government. His preferred mode of decision-making was highly informal. He would hold meetings of his cronies. Sometimes he would simply telephone them and set the policy in motion without reference to others. He tended, like the British Prime Minister, to box fellow leaders into a corner by presenting them with a fait accompli. The cronies did not have to hold official posts. Stalin had plenty of favourites whose opinions he sought; and steadily over the years he weeded out those who were inclined to disagree with his desired objectives.

The institutions of the Soviet state, already denatured by Lenin, became a charade under Stalin. Elections were a farce in the one-party state. Genuine public debate was reduced to a cipher of Stalin's own intentions. All this was done through the extrusion of voters from the process - and here again the comparison with Britain in 2002-2003 becomes apposite. Stalin took his decisions on the quiet. Citizens got to know about policy only after it had been cut and dried by him. Full of self-righteousness, he would announce new measures. Before he held despotic power, he had indeed appeared confident. Later, however, he showed that his confidence was of an excessive kind.

No more pernicious example of this occurred than when Stalin overrode the objections of several of his military commanders and intelligence chiefs in mid-1941. He felt he simply knew better than them about the world. He prided himself on understanding Hitler and sensed that he could trust him. What was at work here was something long ago identified by the historian Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Blair does not have absolute power. (Not even Stalin did - but he certainly came close to it in key political sectors.) But new Labour under him has had unchallengeable parliamentary majorities since 1997, and it has had a long period for the corrupting process to make itself felt. Blair himself came to high office with evident insouciance about the damage his style of rule could cause. Chronic insulation from the threat of being turfed out of office by a competent political opposition has exaggerated faults that existed before he won the election against John Major.

No system of rule can guarantee wise and fair governance, but something has obviously gone badly wrong at the apex of power in the UK. Another comparison with Soviet history is helpful. In the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost whereby he encouraged the ventilation of matters previously reserved for confidential Kremlin discussion alone. He also exposed himself to fundamental public criticism, urging that this would produce a more healthy politics in the USSR. George W Bush and Tony Blair over Iraq and Vladimir Putin over Chechnya have gone the other way by restricting and distorting information available to their electorates. While Putin has reduced independent TV stations to docility in order to have a free hand in the Caucasus, Blair used Alastair Campbell to bully the BBC as a way of diverting attention from the ghastly mess he and Bush had made in the Middle East. In a democratic system, it is time for the PM, whose quasi-apology was an insult to the public, to pay the final price.

Robert Service, fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, is the author of Stalin: a biography, out now from Macmillan (£25)