The House of Lords is the world’s longest-established and probably best-known second chamber. Wholly unelected, with most members appointed for life, it appears a vestige of the ‘elite’ form of bicameralism once common throughout Europe. Hence calls for major reform are commonplace. However successful changes have been piecemeal and rare. Meanwhile the UK is not federal, but is nonetheless a ‘union state’, comprising the territories of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with its own distinct governing arrangements. These were most recently boosted by the 1997 Labour government’s devolution programme. Hence for decades, and particularly the last 20 years, devolution and Lords reform have both been on the UK’s political agenda. Throughout this time attempts to create a ‘second chamber of the nations and regions’ have repeatedly failed. This paper reviews the proposals made, and the obstacles they faced - drawing lessons for Britain, and territorial bicameralism more widely.
According to many legal and political scientists the Austrian Bundesrat is generally considered to be a paradigmatic example of a politically and legally weak second chamber embedded in a strongly centralised federal system. This view is justified. However, there is the need for a more differentiated view with regard to Austria’s federal system and its second chamber.
The paper contends that bicameral systems, irrespective of their differences in composition and powers, are unfit to represent territorial interests in the national decisionmaking process, except in some residual cases. What subnational entities seek is participation rather than representation. This is why alternative, executive-based institutions in which also the national government is present are mushrooming and second chambers are ineffective as territorial bodies. Furthermore, there is a clear trend to move from bicameralism to bilateralism, meaning that instead of taking advantage of ineffective multilateral institutions, strong subnational units try to channel their claims through bilateral instruments. Overall, the unresolved dilemma of subnational representation has little to do with the architecture of second chambers and rather lays in the tension between individual and collective representation.