It has become fashionable to denounce the Westminster elite. A contemptible dishonesty underlies most of these attacks. For the listener is encouraged to believe that we can somehow manage our affairs without an elite: or at least that the attacker is far less elitist than the scoundrels in Westminster.

Two things need to be said about this. The first is that every society is governed by a relatively small number of people. As Ronald Syme observed, in The Roman Revolution: “In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the facade.” There are no exceptions to this rule. Even in a village, and certainly in any larger community, the actual business of government is carried on by a small number of people.

The question then becomes, what is the character of the Westminster elite? Is it relatively honest and open, and does it submit itself, every few years, to the verdict of the wider community? Does it offer, within itself, an opposition, so that when we weary of being governed by one set of people, we can vote them out and elect another? Are its members obliged to obey the law, and sanctioned when they are found to have broken it?

Or is the Westminster elite corrupt and closed? Are we confronted by a tyrannical monolith, in which no breach can be made? Is it impossible to sack one party at a General Election, and put in another? Is the elite impervious to public opinion, as expressed through a free and boisterous press, and on websites such as ConHome? Can criminals remain in office, even when their criminality becomes public knowledge? Are new parties and candidates forbidden from challenging the supremacy of the established ones?

Our system is far closer to the first of these descriptions than to the second. Our elite is relatively open and honest. It submits itself to regular elections and has just agreed to the holding of a referendum which gave Scotland the opportunity to leave the United Kingdom if the Scots wished. The Westminster elite is almost embarrassingly anxious to adapt itself to modern conditions, and to recruit from groups which are under-represented in Parliament: women, ethnic minorities, the working class.

A few days ago, Alistair Burt observed in a cogent piece for this site: “We are falling into the American trap of so denigrating our seat of government that the authority it needs to act on our behalf is being eroded – at our peril.” He stood up for “the Westminster elite” which Alex Salmond has just spent months denouncing. Perhaps Salmond fell short because people recognised that he was likely to prove worse than the very people he was attacking: that as often happens, he was attributing to his opponents the very faults he himself possessed.

Westminster contains a series of checks, evolved over centuries, on the unfettered use of power. Vigilance is needed: and the purpose of Parliament is to be vigilant: to check whether ministers are obeying not only the law, but the dictates of common sense. A backbencher can make a high reputation by being vigilant about some particular danger: some members of the 2010 intake have already done so: they are known to know what they are talking about, so they have to be given a hearing, and whichever minister is at the Dispatch Box has to attempt to reply to their arguments. Here is the answer we have evolved to the “quis custodiet ipsos Custodes” question. The Commons “forces government to make sense – if it can”, as Enoch Powell put it in a speech about the evolution of Parliament which he delivered at Lisbon on 7 May 1990.

I am not here attempting to be in any way exhaustive about the ways in which the Westminster elite is prevented from reducing the rest of us to the status of slaves. But another effectual though often overlooked check is the existence of a monarch who although deprived of political power, occupies the space which a dictator would need to occupy. No Prime Minister or party stays in power for ever. Tony Blair had a long honeymoon, but his own followers did for him in the end, and he now seems condemned to an even longer period of disgrace. Margaret Thatcher performed great services, and was thrown overboard by her own MPs, who thought she had become an electoral liability. Winston Churchill had no sooner led the country to victory in the Second World War than he was dismissed by the British people.

At a humbler level, many MPs had their careers wrecked in the expenses scandal of 2009. Some of these MPs were excellent parliamentarians, but that did not save them. We did not see, in this episode, an elite that was above the law, or able to defy public opinion. A political career which was the fruit of 30 years of unremitting and unglamorous effort could be wrecked by a single indiscretion or even by a single inopportune word (“moat” instead of “ditch”). No wonder so many of our politicians display a morbid and tedious timidity. Far from being too inclined to assert that they know best, they are in many cases too supine: too averse to taking the risk of expressing their honest opinion when that might prove unpopular or provocative.

The difference between the main parties is not as wide as one would wish. The Westminster elite is as subject to conformist pressures as any other group of people. It can remain wedded to policies which have failed, and too timid to advocate courses of action which might have a greater chance of success. Certain things are, at any given point, pretty much unsayable. One will not be put in prison for saying them, but one will be regarded as mad. When de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, he observed what narrow limits democracy could impose on thought. And in 1840, when John Stuart Mill reviewed that book, he observed the same phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic, a few years after the Reform Bill had widened the franchise. As Mill pointed out:

“The House of Lords is the richest and most powerful collection of persons in Europe, yet they not only could not prevent, but were themselves compelled to pass, the Reform Bill. The daily actions of every peer and peeress are falling more and more under the yoke of bourgeois opinion, they feel every day a stronger necessity of showing an immaculate front to the world. When they do venture to disregard common opinion, it is in a body, and when supported by one another; whereas formerly every nobleman acted on his own notions, and dared be as eccentric as he pleased. No rank in society is now exempt from the fear of being peculiar, the unwillingness to be, or to be thought, in any respect original. Hardly anything now depends upon individuals, but all upon classes, and among classes mainly upon the middle class.”

But when all allowance is made for this conformism, it is clear that bold leaders can still (as Boris Johnson is about to contend in his book about Winston Churchill) make a difference. And new parties can still force old ones to adapt or die: in the 1980s the SDP had that effect on the Labour Party, and UKIP is now exerting similar pressure on the Conservatives.

Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell are, as it were, the Roy Jenkins and David Owen of our time. In both cases, the leaders of the new party belonged to the very party they are striving to supplant. They present themselves as outsiders, men of the people who are fearlessly taking on the disgraceful Westminster elite, and they may well think of themselves in that way. But in reality they are themselves disaffected members of the elite: an Old Alleynian and an Old Carthusian who have fallen out with an Old Etonian: three full-time professional politicians who are competing for office.

When people complain about elitism what they really tend to be objecting to is inequality. Labour was created by the trade unions in order to be the voice of the working class. The trade unions supplied political experience and education to their own elite of leaders, and provided a ladder of opportunity by which gifted individuals could rise to high office: Ernie Bevin, for example, the child of a single mother, who left school at the age of 11, created the Transport and General Workers Union and became one of the great Foreign Secretaries. Alan Johnson is a more recent example of a Labour minister who rose to a high level in politics by this route.

When the Queen spoke in 1968 at the dinner held in Guildhall in the City of London in honour of the centenary of the Trades Union Congress, she expressed the hope “that you will continue to provide wise leadership on which the future of our country so much depends”. The union leaders were by then known as barons, in recognition of the great power they wielded. They had become an estate of the realm, members of the elite which was running the country. In that capacity they became, as the elite so often does, extremely unpopular.

Nor had the desire for equality been satisfied, for it collided with the need, in politics as in every other field, for hierarchy: for people who can keep the show on the road because they have some knowledge of how to run things, a task which entails telling other people what to do. As soon as Labour politicians got into office, they were accused of being insufficiently egalitarian. The craving for equality (another aspect of democracy which de Tocqueville had identified) nevertheless remains one of the great motive forces in our politics. People who possess large amounts of power, influence and money yearn to convince even themselves that they are ordinary people, no more privileged than anyone else. As Peter Hennessy observes in an enjoyable pamphlet which he is about to publish on the twin themes of Establishment and Meritocracy (Haus Curiosities, £7.99), it is extraordinarily difficult to define the Establishment, in part because so many of its members pretend not to belong to it:

“Its members can set the tone, influence the direction of public policy and exert considerable sway over future appointments to the professions in which they have risen. Yet plenty of successful people would be appalled to think they were Establishment figures. It is not a label for flaunting. Indeed many would define themselves against it. Though quite often they quietly slip inside it during their middle and later years while remaining determined not to succumb to its state-of-mind, which is itself the mistiest of concepts.”

What a feeble frame of mind is here revealed. We have an elite that does not even wish to admit it is an elite. No wonder it has fallen into contempt. Such mealy-mouthed evasiveness makes holding our rulers to account, or understanding what they are doing, considerably harder. One of the reasons why Ed Miliband is so unconvincing is that he goes around attacking “an elite few at the top” (his words on the Today programme yesterday morning), and everyone knows he too is is a member of that group. Every time this son of privilege attacks the elite he shoots himself in the foot. What he should be arguing for is a better elite. How liberated he would feel if he could bring himself to admit this.

The worst fault of the Westminster elite is that it is not elitist enough. By 1859, when he published On Liberty, John Stuart Mill had become gravely worried by the tendencies which he observed, and issued this warning:

“No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity except in so far as the sovereign many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed one or few.”