In the British parliamentary system, the lower chamber or House of Commons is always elected. The upper chamber, called the House of Lords in Britain and the Senate elsewhere, is traditionally unelected. The presence of this unelected chamber is sometimes the source of considerable debate. This article explores from a practical perspective (i.e. not from a historical perspective) why the upper chamber is traditionally unelected.


  • Australia is an example of a country which follows most of the traditions of the British parliamentary system but which has an elected Senate.

  • In Britain, the House of Lords is unelected with most Lords being hereditary (i.e. a member because their father was a member). The remaining Lords are appointed for life to non-hereditary positions (the British Government has been reducing the number of hereditary members).

  • Canada's Senate is also unelected. Senators appointed prior to 1965 were given lifetime appointments. All appointments since 1965 have a mandatory retirement age of 75.

  • Anywhere in this writeup where the term Monarch appears, it should be read to mean "Monarch (i.e. the King or the Queen) or their representative".

  • I'm trying to explain something in this writeup - i.e. don't assume that I agree with everything that is said here (see Final words below for more info).

By tradition, the members of the upper chamber in a British parliamentary system are appointed by the Monarch. In practice, the Monarch always appoints those who are recommended by the Prime Minister. This results in a chamber which appears to be the antithesis of what a representative democracy is all about - i.e. unelected! The rationale behind having an unelected chamber is something like this:

  • an elected chamber would have considerable legitimate power. As such, it could and would interfere with the House of Common's ability to run the country (the experience in Australia with their elected Senate within a British parliamentary system would seem to bear this out; there are enough subtle but important differences between a British parliamentary system and an American style system (e.g. how and when elections are called) to render comparisons between the two systems which are focused on an elected vs unelected Senate problematic).

  • in contrast, an unelected chamber would have little legitimate power simply because it is unelected. The traditions of representative democracy will ensure that the unelected chamber stays out of the way of the elected chamber - i.e. the ability of the unelected chamber to interfere with the elected House of Commons is more apparent than real.

  • if the House of Commons attempts to pass a piece of very unpopular legislation then the unelected chamber can, and in practice often will, delay the passage of said legislation until such time that the House of Commons is forced by public opinion to withdraw or modify the legislation.

  • if the issue is sufficiently important to the country (i.e. to the public) and if the House of Commons refuses to "listen to the people" then the unelected chamber is in a position to legitimately interfere with the will of the House of Commons by virtue of the fact that said interference would be in keeping with the "will of the people".
An example of this almost happened in Canada in the early 1990s. The Government was trying to force through a piece of particularly unpopular taxation-related legislation (the dreaded GST). The unelected Senate did everything in its power to block the bill. It was only as a result of the Prime Minister using a very rarely used ability to appoint extra senators (i.e. beyond the normal capacity of the Canadian Senate) that the Government of the day was able to get the legislation passed.

There were a lot of complaints that the "system" hadn't worked although it is important to point out that practically nobody, other than the Government and some of their supporters, was complaining about the Senate's attempt to defeat the bill. Rather, most people were very upset that the Government had forced through the bill. The people got their chance to voice their "displeasure" in a general election a year or two later when they reduced the party that had forced through the _unpopular_ measure from a majority of 169 out of 295 seats to a grand total of two (2) seats! i.e. the "system" had worked.

More notes

  • There are many subtle differences between the various styles of British parliamentary democracy practiced around the world. As such, it would be wrong to assume that the above explanation covers all of these subtleties.

  • The British House of Lords has been unable to do more than delay legislation since the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911. The maximum delay allowed by the 1911 Act was two years. The Parliament Act of 1949 reduced this maximum delay to one year. The British House of Lords does retain the ability to kill a bill which strives to extend the life of a Parliament to beyond five years (i.e. delay a general election beyond five years after the last general election).

  • Many Canadians continue to believe that the system didn't work because the party which replaced the earlier party in the subsequent election broke their promise to repeal the GST. I argue that the system worked in the sense that the party in power has now been out of power for nine years and it is quite clear that they will remain out of power for quite some time to come (i.e. many many Canadians refuse to vote for the party because of what they did (i.e. pass the GST against the clear and express wishes of the people) the last time that they were in power). The failure of the replacement party to keep their promise to repeal the GST is a symptom of a different malaise.

  • The Australian system allows the Government to bring both chambers together for a joint vote on bills that the Senate is blocking. As there are more members in the lower chamber than in the upper chamber, this has the practical effect of allowing the Government (i.e. party in power in the lower chamber) to force through most contentious bills.

    In the last general election in Australia (November of 2001), there were 150 lower chamber seats and 76 upper chamber seats.

  • The Monarch can, at least in theory, refuse to sign any piece of legislation even after it has been passed by both chambers. In practice, the Monarch has never actually done so since the sovereignty of Parliament was established in the 1600's (Charles I was beheaded for his refusal to bend to the will of Parliament). There is apparently considerable doubt today whether or not the refusal of the Monarch to sign a bill into law would be constitutional (i.e. the Monarch may not have any choice).

  • See the writings of Albert V. Dicey for lots more information on how a British parliamentary democracy works (primarily his Introduction to the Study of Law of the Constitution). Some of his views are available here.

Final words

In conclusion, I believe that one can argue that an unelected upper chamber is not inherently undemocratic. That said, I am definitely troubled by the notion of an unelected upper chamber and would feel much better if both chambers in the Canadian Parliament were elected. Attempts have been made to introduce elected members into the unelected Canadian Senate (proposals have also been made to simply disband the upper chamber). The attempts to date have, for the most part, failed totally. Time will tell if Canada is able to come up with a solution which is appropriate within the Canadian context and get it implemented.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.