Britain reformed its Undemocratic Upper House a Century Ago

The Houses of Parliament, London.
The Houses of Parliament. (Photo by Jill Battaglia / Trevillion Images)

This article is the second part of a six-part series, “Constitutional Changes to Restore American Democracy: Reforming the U.S. Senate and ending the Imperial Presidency.” Click here to read Part One: “The Undemocratic U.S. Senate.”

Most Americans know that a Parliament governs Britain, seated in London. If they have heard of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, they probably think the two houses have equal power. These people would be wrong.

In reality, the entire law-making power of the United Kingdom rests in the House of Commons. The role of the wholly-appointed House of Lords is purely advisory. When the Lords receive a bill from the House of Commons, they review it, offer suggestions for changes, and return it to the House of Commons.

After the House of Lords has reviewed a bill, the House of Commons can send any bill it wants to the Queen for her obligatory signature. There is no “veto” in Britain: The word of Commons is literally Law in the U.K.

Despite minor exceptions, that is basically it. The House of Commons makes the laws of Britain. The rest is advice and — in the case of the Queen — ceremony.

An All-Powerful House of Commons encourages Voting

One happy result of placing all power in one body is that the House of Commons cannot shift it’s responsibilities to anyone or any thing else. As a result, British people vote in elections, since one vote in one district or “constituency” may decide which party controls the country. Since the soldiers returned from World War I, voter turnout in national elections has never been lower than 59.4%. In the most recent general election, the turnout was 67.3%.

1911: The House of Lords becomes advisory.

The House of Lords became an advisory body when they passed the Parliament Act of 1911. The Lords voted themselves out of power after Prime Minister Asquith made clear that if the Lords did not consent, King George V would “create” as many Lords as were necessary to give Asquith the majority he needed to pass bills he wanted.

Since then, Britain has been a true democracy. The House of Lords cannot delay a bill appropriating money more than a month. The Lords can delay other bills for only one year; sometimes that is sufficient to allow a general election to weigh public opinion.

The Lords of the House of Lords are not all Nobility

When the Parliament Act was passed, nearly all seats in the House of Lords were hereditary. Since then, the vast majority of Lords have become “life peers”; usually retired politicians and business leaders, but there are also “People’s Peers” with other skills such as physician or scientist. Whether a hereditary peer, bishop of a major British church, or a life peer, they all serve for life. As such, like federal judges in the U.S, they can do their best without worrying that they will lose their office in the next election

Part Three: Reforming the U.S. Senate to restore American Democracy (click here)

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1 Response

  1. July 12, 2020

    […] Part Two: How Great Britain eliminated the Problem of its Undemocratic Upper House a Century Ago (click here) […]

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