In a very simple tribal society, a number of political orders are feasible. It would be possible for the tribe's leader to make all key decisions herself. Alternatively, every key decision could be decided by a vote of all adults. But in a modern, complex society of vast numbers of individuals and huge numbers of challenges, only one system of government is feasible: oligarchy. The only way to run a modern society is to appoint a small minority of the population to specialise in understanding all the key questions around how the country should be governed, and to make decisions about them.
Amongst oligarchic systems of government, there are two main possible forms: one in which one oligarchy dominates almost the entire time; and one in which there are competing oligarchies. In the UK we have the one oligarchy system, which is often referred to as the Establishment. The Establishment is not a sinister collection of fifteen individuals that could sit around a table. Rather, it is the collective organic expression of Britain's constitutional and cultural traditions, built around a core of individuals that attended Oxford and Cambridge or were privately educated, reaching out to encompass legal professionals, journalists, civil servants, management consultants, senior military figures and others that share a broad set of cultural and ethical presumptions and interpretations of history, and behave in ways that are predictable to one another, allowing them to cooperate quickly and effectively.
The Establishment has a number of important subdivisions within it. One of the most important is that between the camps I like to refer as the "Court" and the "Monks". The Court are those that create and implement policy – civil servants, those working for regulators, think-tankers, consultants, front-bench MPs in the governing party, and the like. The "Monks" are those that communicate and criticise policy – journalists, priests, lifelong backbench MPs, and so on. Each have their roles.
But even within the Court there will not always be unanimity. Where members of the Court disagree with one another, there are three broad options: they argue it out with one another and come to a consensus; there is a considerable majority position; matters are fairly balanced. When matters are fairly balanced, it is helpful to the Court to have an external arbitrator. It actually doesn't matter that much to the decision-making process who that arbitrator is. Since the Court all come at these question with similar backgrounds and presumptions, if they are balanced in their disagreements it is most unlikely that they think it is of great significance whether things are done one way or the other – they just need a call to be made. So we could have a King that made the call when the Court had a balanced split, or we could have voters do it, or (if the number of balanced calls might be a bit high for voters to do it) we could have voters pre-select a set of representatives (let's call it a "Parliament") to make these calls when needed. There are various pros and cons to those different systems, but none of them is especially relevant to our discussion here. For our purposes it's enough to note that the key role of "democracy" (i.e. public voting) in our system is to assist an ongoing Establishment in managing its internal divisions. Whether Labour or Conservatives are in power, the civil servants will be the same, the PM will probably be from Oxford, the Bank of England governor will be charming, and Dimblebys will dominate current affairs at the BBC.
There is one other role for voting in our system, namely the creation of a theoretical possibility of overturning our vested oligarchy altogether and replacing it with something else – Greens, or Communists, or the BNP or some other such radical alternative. In practice, after a period of unpleasantness, such alternative oligarchies would probably invite most of the Establishment back in, but there would be disruption and misery and risk enough for the Establishment to want to avoid this. So it's a helpful disciplining threat hanging over the Establishment to keep it doing its best.
Some modern societies use the alternative of actively competing oligarchies – e.g. the loss of election might mean that almost all key positions in the bureacracy and regulatory authorities, even in the media, change over to the new governing party. This does make a difference, but in most cases not that vast a difference.
Given that oligarchy is inevitably the governing system in all complex societies, it might seem natural to wonder how societies could differ materially, if their governmental orders are ultimately so similar? A small part of the answer lies in the specific constitutional mechanisms. But mostly, the difference arises because different oligarchies have different internally-shared values and different evolution paths and because their countries have different histories and different positions in the world. It is these organic differences that determine almost everything – constitutional mechanisms are really only of significance as expressions of cultural traditions amonst the relevant oligarchy.
Over the very long-haul (say, at the scale of thousands of years), only religions and philosophical systems matter – very long-term history can only be understood as a battle of ideas. But in the interim, what most determines how we evolve as a society is the values and coherence of our oligarchy. What stands between Britain and the constutional disasters seen elsewhere is the Establishment.
Understanding this point has a number of consequences. First, and most obviously, it is simply a brute error to believe that every measure that increases the power of the People and diminishes that of the Establishment is positive. Democracy is of value in assisting and expressing and disciplining oligarchy – but it can never hope to replace it. Next, if the Establishment loses its coherence (e.g. a sense of binding goals and purposes) or its values (e.g. Anglicanism, liberal democracy) or its faith (e.g. if its unifying goal became managed decline or its own extinction) then the country as a whole will, given long enough, be badly affected by that. Third, those of us that aspire to be part of or assist the Establishment should recognise the responsibility and function of the role. We do very little that is of ultimate value – we don't make anything; we don't entertain; we don't restore health. As individuals we matter relatively little. That is one reason meritocracy is over-rated: the skills and other merits of the individual are almost irrelevant compared to the merits of the collective tradition to which we belong.
All we do is to perpetuate and develop the cultural norms that begat us, and express them in action today, collectively and organically occupying the space between anarchy and oppression.