Both the US and the UK formerly had an upper legislative house which wielded considerable power despite being elected by government officials rather than the people (the Senate) or completely unelected (the House of Lords). In the early 1900s, both countries took actions to rectify this problem, but in radically different ways; the Senate was made directly elected, while the House of Lords was stripped of essentially all of its powers.

Why the great difference?

  • 15
    Why is an unelected upper house neccecarily a problem?
    – Caleth
    Apr 17, 2019 at 7:13
  • 5
    @Caleth "not democratic", "will of the people" etc
    – pjc50
    Apr 17, 2019 at 8:10
  • 7
    I rather like that the members of the House of Lords sit because they feel it's their duty and not because they actually sought that power.
    – Alnitak
    Apr 17, 2019 at 8:57
  • 5
    As @Alnitak said, there is no point having a second house if it works in exactly the same way as the lower house. Sometimes it is important to have people who are working on what they believe is best overall, and not dependant on the short-term whim of the electorate.
    – MikeB
    Apr 17, 2019 at 10:38
  • 6
    @Chronocidal I'm not really buying this "democracy is bad because losing wealth is worse than never having it in the first place" argument, but I also think it's gone far off topic.
    – pjc50
    Apr 17, 2019 at 12:44

4 Answers 4


The two contexts are very different. The US is federal with the Senators representing the states at the federal level, while the UK was an entirely centralized state running an empire from Westminster.

The UK conflict over the budget which led to the Parliament act was effectively class warfare (with Winston Churchill on the progressive side!). Changing the structure altogether would probably have been out of the question. The US has a formal constitutional reform process, the UK does not; the compromise was only achieved by threatening to get the King to stuff the Lords with enough new Peers to vote it through.

(To me the part of the US system which matches the Lords most closely is actually the Supreme Court; significant power to make social change, but life appointments, and the only way to achieve democratic control is to appoint more people from a faction.)

Perhaps a more important question is why, given how often it's been in the Labour manifesto, the abolition of the Lords hasn't yet happened.

  • 2
    "The US has a formal constitutional reform process, the UK does not" - Though to be fair, the UK doesn't have a constitution. Shouldn't that have made reform easier?
    – sgf
    Apr 17, 2019 at 7:39
  • 8
    @sgf No: the UK is based on precedent, tradition, custom, practice, general understanding, Erskine May and a number of other collections of rules and procedures. Amending a single concrete document is easy by comparison. Apr 17, 2019 at 8:02
  • 4
    @sgf Yes and no; the UK can pass what in any other country would be constitution-level changes with a simple majority (e.g. Fixed Term Parliaments Act); but in this case, the Lords still had their veto. So it wasn't possible to make changes to the Lords without their consent. This made it a question of realpolitic and finding a compromise which the Lords accepted - in this case losing power over the budget and manifesto items, but not general legislation.
    – pjc50
    Apr 17, 2019 at 8:09
  • 7
    Abolishing the House of Lords has the same status in the Labour manifesto as "taking back key industries into public ownership" (i.e. renationalizing water and energy supplies, the railways, telecoms, etc, etc.). They keep the hard left and anti-establishment elements of the party happy, but nobody with any real political authority (except possibly Corbyn, in recent times) takes them any more seriously than the existence of the tooth fairy.
    – alephzero
    Apr 17, 2019 at 8:47
  • 2
    @sgf "UK Doesn't have a constitution" - more accurately, it doesn't have a written constitution; but that doesn't mean it doesn't have one
    – UKMonkey
    Apr 17, 2019 at 9:03

Because the UK simply couldn't have followed the US approach.

The US Senate was still quite young and democracy the official form of government, so these reforms were made easily.

In the UK however, the House of Lords was old, entrenched in tradition and - given that the official head of state is still the queen - removing the lords from the government would have brought a huge uproar among the influential (many of which held titles and were therefore on the "losing side" of this reform), so they did the most they could reasonably achieve: strip all the power while on paper retaining their title and (some) function

  • 2
    King, at the time, not Queen.
    – TRiG
    Apr 17, 2019 at 14:08
  • 1
    @Graham the US did not (and does not) have legally-codified hereditary social classes, except (particularly at the time) "race".
    – Deolater
    Apr 17, 2019 at 16:32
  • 1
    @Graham - That's a lot of words you wrote, just to explain to everyone why I used the word "explicitly".
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 17, 2019 at 17:14
  • 1
    @T.E.D. But you've fallen into the trap of thinking the US Senate didn't have that problem. The US was founded by a small group of people who inherited the privilege. Just because they took the name tag off that privilege, it doesn't mean it's not there.
    – Graham
    Apr 17, 2019 at 17:58
  • 1
    @Graham - Again, you're horribly misreading what I'm saying.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 17, 2019 at 21:05

The US & the UK are two different polities with different histories. It’s not particularly surprising that they have different constitutional arrangements.

The key principle in the UK is the sovereignty of parliament and this is taken to mean that government is driven by the House of Commons where the legislature is directly elected. The House of Lords then effects oversight.

Its the same rationale that means that the US congress is bicameral, that is a legislative body that has two houses.


In the United States, the Senate exists to give small states more influence and counteract the greater population of the larger states. It is constitutionally enshrined in that role. At the time that the Senate was made directly elected, there was little support for reducing that role, particularly among small states. And remember, constitutional amendments require two thirds of the Senators to agree (or a constitutional convention, but that has never happened since the founding).

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords was left over from a time when the lords had more power. The general trend has been to reduce that power. When support for reduction reached a sufficient level, it was done. Power switched from the House of Lords to the Commons.

In both cases, the change from unelected to elected would seem to be something of a side effect. First, the Senate was appointed by the democratically elected state legislatures. There were accusations of corruption in that process. Direct elections were considered less corrupt rather than more democratic. Second, the Lords were the legacy branch and the Commons the newer branch. Transferring power from the legacy to the newer branch is natural. It's merely an extension of the initial process.

The House of Lords did not exist because the Commons needed balanced. It would be more accurate to say that the Commons came into existence to balance the power of the lords.

The US solution, making Senators directly elected, would have made little sense in the UK. Rather than a natural change, it would have essentially eliminated the House of Lords and added a new House. But how would such a House have worked? There doesn't seem to be a movement in the UK to balance large population areas with small population areas. So what they would have had would have been essentially a second House of Commons, which would have been redundant.

TL;DR: while it is accurate to say that both switched from unelected to elected, the reasons behind the switches were quite different.

  • The 17th Amendment was also brought about because some of the State Legislatures could not get any candidate through, especially if a party didn't hold both houses, which does happen often. There were several states that went for the better part of a term without filling the seats. Corruption had little to do with this aspect and provided more of the reason to give it to direct elections.
    – hszmv
    Apr 18, 2019 at 18:10

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