Unitary Government Essay

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The great majority of countries in the world utilize a unitary form of government, in which the central government, by constitutional arrangement, is the exclusive sovereign power: it has the legal authority to create, reorganize, or eliminate subordinate levels of government. In countries that use a unitary structure—for example, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, and Sweden—the central, or national, government reigns supreme and any constituent units in the form of subnational governments—such as local authorities—are not sovereign unto themselves and have limited autonomy. Central governments in unitary systems determine what subordinate layers of governance are necessary and to what extent power will be decentralized or devolved to them. Moreover, the central government retains the authority to abrogate the powers it has given to local entities at any time, or ultimately to abolish them.

Rationale For A Unitary Form Of Government

Culture, history, and geography are the most important factors for a country to select a unitary system. The most common way nations came to utilize the unitary form is via a transition from a prior system with a highly centralized structure. Countries that have chosen the unitary form typically have historical experience with monarchical systems of governance, whereby kings, queens, or emperors exercised dominance over the nation’s administration. Unitary systems often have been adopted in the former colonies of such countries. This is a logical segue for societies that were first conditioned to embrace a consolidation of power under the divine right of kings or via a centralized imperial administration: unified sovereignty is retained as these polities move toward alternative conceptualizations of governing authority. Thus, a comfort level within the political culture, along with a centralized governmental apparatus previously in place, often work in tandem to motivate adoption or retention of the unitary form.

Other factors affecting the choice among systems include the size of the country’s territory and its ethnic or religious homogeneity. Countries that have smaller populations, that are more compact geographically, and that contain within themselves minimal ethnic diversity and religious differentiation (i.e., with greater homogeneity) often choose unitary systems. Unitary countries, then, commonly do not have high levels of cultural or political division to reconcile inside their borders; this is reinforced by unitary states typically having only one house legislatures, unlike the two-chamber norm in federal states.

More recently, the nations of Eastern Europe that broke away from the dominating shadow of the Soviet Union in the 1990s have opted for unitary systems after independence. Scholars posit that these newly freed nations viewed the old Soviet federal system as one of the leading mechanisms used by Moscow at the center to control the periphery (i.e., the former non-Russian Soviet republics). In this instance, unitary systems were chosen in reaction to specific historical experiences and perceptions of cultural imperialism.

Unitary Versus Federal Or Confederal Systems

Unitary systems are inherently more clear-cut and less complicated than alternative systems, and with no large territories to govern or deep ethno cultural divisions to manage, there is no perceived need for more complex constitutional arrangements. Generally speaking, unitary systems offer an unambiguous and readily comprehensible setting out of government authority—with less opportunity for extensive bargaining or power posturing (i.e., fewer veto points) amongst political actors compared to systems with multilevel governance structures.

The two other primary forms of government used by nation-states are federations (i.e., federalism) and confederations. These types are much less common than the unitary system. The essential element that distinguishes them revolves around the relationship between the central government and the other, more localized governmental entities operating within that nation.

Unlike unitary governments, federalism is a constitutional and structural arrangement designed to accommodate both a strong central government and strong subnational governments—in the form of provincial, state, or regional authorities—with sovereignty divided between them. Examples of federal systems are the United States, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. Both levels of government share jurisdiction over the same land and the same people, thus a citizen of the state of California and a citizen of the state of New York are also citizens of the United States in the same way that a citizen of the province of Nova Scotia and a citizen of the province of British Columbia are both citizens of Canada. These four sets of citizens are subject to both the state or provincial law and national law. Both levels of government are sovereign and cannot extinguish the other. Having several formal layers of governance is an essential component found in federal systems, and in a bona fide federal framework, the ability of the central government to overrule decisions made by local or provincial governments is greatly constrained or nonexistent.

A confederation is a loose union of subnational political units, such as states or provinces that legitimately can be considered in this context as their own separate countries, where they alone are sovereign. The authority of the central government is derived from the member states, which can, at their will, redefine the authority of the central government. Thus, the central government fulfills the role as a simple emissary or representative of the collective will of the constituent members of the confederation. Leading contemporary examples of confederations are Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union (EU), although there is ongoing scholarly debate over whether they are more federation than confederation.

There are strong and weak versions of each of these three systems, and at times a highly decentralized unitary government can appear to be almost a federal system, such as Spain, Italy, and France, and a weak federal system, as seen in Austria, can appear to be virtually unitary. As well, in many countries, the relationship and the accompanying distribution of power between the national government and subnational governments are fluid and dynamic, not static—changeability and evolution in these governance connections are not uncommon, especially as they seek optimal ways of administering policies and distributing tax revenues.

Evolution And Change In Unitary Government

In the modern era, unitary states have come to recognize the pragmatic considerations and increased administrative efficacy in decentralizing more governmental authority in terms of both policy making and policy implementation down to the lower, more localized levels. This change to more regionally based governance in unitary systems speaks directly to the ongoing challenges with which modern governments must contend in the twenty-first century.

This shift constitutes one of the major contemporary questions about the choice of system—as countries with unitary systems devolve more power and decision-making authority to lower levels of government, at what point are they no longer unitary and instead de facto federal systems? How does one decide which system, or which of its variants, is optimal for a particular country’s circumstances? At the heart of these governance considerations is the necessity of managing disparate local, regional, and national interests. As nations cope with the vagaries of modern social, economic, and political life, they choose an increasing variety of structural means. When central government maintains the authority to ultimately veto and rescind decisions made by lower governmental officials, it can be said to be a unitary system; but the varying degrees and gradations within both unitary and federal systems render the definitional distinctions and empirical differentiation between these two forms murkier.

This trend toward less rather than more differentiation raises several theoretical dilemmas: Is federalism simply a stage in the path to a unitary system? Or the reverse, is a unitary system a step, a phase, leading ultimately to federalism? Moreover, why do some efforts at forming a federal system fail (e.g., the Caribbean Federation and the East African Federation) where others succeed?

Other questions about the optimal governance arrangements animate scholarly discourse. How much power should localities have in blocking important central government decisions? How much adaptive leeway should be placed in a nation’s constitution to allow ready evolution and changes in the relationships between the central, regional, and local governments? How does one determine which one of the three methods for a central government to disperse authority away from the center—devolution, decentralization, or deconcentration—is the best course of action for a particular country? With the increasing popularity of the use of regional governments in the crafting of public policies, how much actual decision-making authority should regional actors have to implement or alter these policies after adoption? What is the appropriate filtering role for regional governments as intermediary between the central government and the localities?

The European Union constitutes an ongoing case study for political scientists on these challenging political relationships (e.g., the EU’s relationship to its constituent nations and their sub constituent governmental units). Is the EU a federation or a confederation and what does its development imply for the future of unitary governments?


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  2. Elazar, Daniel. “Contrasting Unitary and Federal Systems.” International Political Science Review 18, no. 3 (1997): 237–251.
  3. “From Statism to Federalism: A Paradigm Shift.” International Political Science Review 17, no. 4 (1996): 417–430.
  4. Hague, Rod, and Martin Harrop. Political Science: A Comparative Introduction. 5th ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  5. Hueglin,Thomas O., and Alan Frenna. Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 2005.
  6. Kesselman, Mark, Joel Kriger, and Christopher S. Allen. Introduction to Comparative Politics: Political Challenges and Changing Agendas. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  7. O’Neil, Patrick H. Essentials of Comparative Politics. 2nd ed. New York:W.W. Norton, 2006.

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