What Is a Unitary State?

Examples, pros and cons of the most common form of government

Cartoon of people applauding a politician
Happy Crowd Cheering a Politician.

Nick Shepherd, Ikon Images

A unitary state, or unitary government, is a governing system in which a single central government has total power over all of its other political subdivisions. A unitary state is the opposite of a federation, where governmental powers and responsibilities are divided. In a unitary state, the political subdivisions must carry out the directives of the central government but have no power to act on their own.

Key Takeaways: Unitary State

  • In a unitary state, the national government has total authority over all of the country’s other political subdivisions (e.g. states).
  • Unitary states are the opposite of federations, in which governing power is shared by a national government and its subdivisions.
  • The unitary state is the most common form of government in the world.

In a unitary state, the central government may grant some powers to its local governments through a legislative process called “devolution.” However, the central government reserves supreme power and can revoke the powers it devolves to the local governments or invalidate their actions.

Examples of Unitary States

Of the 193 member countries of the United Nations, 165 are unitary states. The United Kingdom and France are two well-recognized examples. 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom (UK) is composed of the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While technically a constitutional monarchy, the UK functions as a unitary state, with total political power held by Parliament (the national legislature located in London, England). While the other countries within the UK each have their own governments, they cannot enact laws that affect any other part of the UK, nor can they refuse to enforce a law enacted by Parliament.

France

In the Republic of France, the central government exercises total control over the country’s nearly 1,000 local political subdivisions, which are called “departments.” Each department is headed by an administrative prefect appointed by the French central government. While they are technically governments, France’s regional departments exist only to implement the directives issued by the central government.

Some other notable unitary states include Italy, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and the Philippines.

Unitary States vs. Federations

The opposite of a unitary state is a federation. A federation is a constitutionally organized union or alliance of partially self-governing states or other regions under a central federal government. Unlike the largely powerless local governments in a unitary state, the states of a federation enjoy some degree of independence in their internal affairs.

The US government structure is a good example of a federation. The U.S. Constitution establishes a system of federalism under which powers are shared between the central government in Washington, D.C., and the governments of the 50 individual states. The power-sharing system of federalism is defined in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

While the U.S. Constitution specifically reserves some powers for the federal government, other powers are granted to the collective states, and others are shared by both. While the states have the power to enact their own laws, the laws must comply with the U.S. Constitution. Lastly, the states have the power to collectively amend the U.S. Constitution, provided that two-thirds of state governments vote to demand it.

Even in federations, the distribution of power is often a source of controversy. In the United States, for example, disputes over states’ rights—the constitutional division of power between the federal and state governments—is a common subject of rulings issued by the U.S. Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction.

Unitary States vs. Authoritarian States

Unitary states should not be confused with authoritarian states. In an authoritarian state, all governing and political power is vested in a single individual leader or small, elite group of individuals. The leader or leaders of an authoritarian state are not chosen by the people, nor are they constitutionally responsible to the people. Authoritarian states rarely allow freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom to practice non-state approved religions. In addition, there are no provisions for protecting the rights of minorities. Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler is typically cited as the prototypical authoritarian state; modern examples include Cuba, North Korea, and Iran.

Pros and Cons

The unitary state is the most common form of government in the world. This system of government has its benefits, but as with all schemes of dividing power between government and the people, it also has drawbacks.

Advantages of a Unitary State

Can act quickly: Because decisions are made by a single governing body, the unitary government is able to respond more quickly to unexpected situations, whether they are domestic or foreign.

Can be less costly: Without the multiple levels of government bureaucracy common to federations, unitary states are able to operate more efficiently, thus potentially reducing their tax burden on the population.

Can be smaller: The unitary state can govern the entire country from a single location with a minimal number or elected officials. The smaller structure of a unitary state allows it to meet the needs of the people without involving a massive workforce.

Disadvantages of Unitary States

Can lack infrastructure: Although they may be able to make decisions quickly, unitary governments sometimes lack the physical infrastructure needed to implement their decisions. In national emergencies, like natural disasters, the absence of infrastructure can endanger the people.

Can ignore local needs: Because they can be slow to develop the resources needed to respond to arising situations, unitary governments tend to focus on foreign affairs while keeping domestic needs on the back burner.

Can encourage abuse of power: In unitary states, a single person or legislative body holds most, if not all, governmental power. History has shown that power, when placed in too few hands, is easily abused.

Sources