Unitary States, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Sophie Savage

A state can either be unitary or federal. These classifications are used to show how a state is organised between different levels of government by a Constitution (the laws and principles that set out how a country should be governed).

For the purposes of this discussion, different levels of government are central government and sub-national government. Central government is the government that governs the entire state, country or nation. Sub-national government can mean different things for different states; it is local government, and this can be at different levels: states, municipalities, and provinces. Simply, sub-national government is government that isn’t nationwide, the opposite of central government.

In a unitary state the constitution, so the laws that define a state do not formally give any power to sub-national government. Sovereignty, complete authority, is given to the central government, which means all the powers are given to central government. Therefore, in a unitary state sub-national government is not given any constitutionally-designated sovereignty. However, that doesn’t mean that in unitary states sub-national governments do not exist and that central government makes every decision. Rather, it means that central government has the power to create sub-national government and the power to decide which powers and responsibilities it will have. This process is devolution of powers by central government.

For example, a unitary state could function as follows:

  1. The constitution gives complete sovereignty to central government – the state is unitary.
  2. Central government decides it would be best to create a sub-national government for its different provinces.
  3. Central government gives powers to the provincial (sub-national) government it has created, including the power of building regulation, where they can permit or reject the development of new buildings and properties in their province.

In this example, while the constitution does not give the power of building regulation to sub-national government, central government has decided to devolve this power to it. Therefore, in a unitary state it is not that sub-national government is not influential or powerful, but they are not constitutionally-sovereign.

Due to unitary states not having constitutionally-defined sub-national governments they can look drastically different from one state to the next. This is because each different central government in each different central state is deciding how sub-national exists, where it exists, how it is elected, the powers it has and so on. This leads to lots of different possibilities for what a sub-national government looks like in different unitary states, so understanding one sub-national government in one unitary state doesn’t mean understanding sub-national government in another. The overriding similarity between sub-national governments in unitary states is that they are all accountable and subject to central government.

What Types of State are Unitary States?

Often the distinction between unitary and federal states can be seen in other characteristics of the states. These characteristics concern the history, size, demographic make-up of a state and so on. A unitary state often exists when a state is not ethnically or religiously diverse and where there is an overall homogenous culture. This makes sense, because if power and sovereignty belong to the central government, then it means power is centralised. To make sound decisions at a central level that affect an entire nation, it must mean that different areas of that nation are similar, for one decision to be made to affect everyone, rather than the need for lots of different decisions due to differences between different areas.

For example, in a country where most people followed one religion, it would be possible for the central government to make a law or policy around that religion, without causing a backlash. This is because despite living in different parts of the nation, people’s lives were similar in terms of religion. However, to make a law or policy around that religion in a religiously diverse country would mean some areas would be happy and others would not. So, in a diverse state a unitary system would be more conflicted – this is why they tend to exist in places of similarity.

Pros and Cons of Unitary States

Pros

  • Clear accountability: when only one level of government is constitutionally sovereign (central) if something goes wrong, then it is clear who is accountable.
  • Decisive action: when decisions are being made centrally they can be made quickly and efficiently, rather than different decisions being made at different levels causing delays.
  • Equalisation: when decisions are coming from central government it means that wherever you are in the nation, you are under the same laws and have access to the same rights – this creates equality across a state.

Cons

  • Top-heavy power: when all the power is given to central government it creates one, singularly powerful entity. Should one entity really be in control of an entire nation?
  • Disregard for minority interests: central government puts national interests over the interests of minorities in specific regions or provinces.
  • Disregard for local issues: local issues can be deemed too small and unimportant for the central government to deal with when they are faced with governing a nation, this means these issues can be ignored and disregarded.

Examples of Unitary States

The majority of states are unitary states; these include the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, France, and China.

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