In the British
parliamentary system, the lower chamber
or House of Commons
is always elected
The upper chamber, called the House of Lords
and the Senate
elsewhere, is traditionally
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
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 -
the ability of the unelected chamber to interfere
with the elected House of Commons is more apparent
- 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.
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
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.
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.