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What is a Unitary System?

A unitary system is a form of government where power is concentrated in the central authority, with limited powers delegated to local entities. This structure streamlines decision-making, ensuring uniformity across the nation. It contrasts with federal systems, where power is shared between national and regional governments. How does this impact the balance of power and citizen representation? Explore further to uncover the implications.
John Markley
John Markley

A unitary system is a form of government in which authority is concentrated in the central government. Local governments, such as those of regions or cities, are under the control of that central authority. They have only those powers granted to them, and the central government may alter or abolish local authorities at will. This distinguishes this type of system from the government of a federal state, in which the federation's constituent units themselves have at least some attributes of a sovereign state in their own right that the federal government must respect, and from confederations, in which sovereign states voluntarily delegate certain powers to a supranational organization.

This system is the world's most common form of government, and it appears in both democratic and nondemocratic countries. Most European nations have unitary governments — with the exceptions of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria and Russia — as do most of Africa and Asia. Most governments based on the Westminster system are unitary, though Canada, Australia, India and Malaysia have federal constitutions. Present-day monarchies where the monarch still has significant power, such as Liechtenstein, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, usually are unitary, though the United Arab Emirates is a federation ruled by an elective monarchy. Dictatorial and single-party governments almost always are unitary, though the defunct Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was an exception to this.

In a federal system, as used in the U.S., states and local governments retain some sovereign powers.
In a federal system, as used in the U.S., states and local governments retain some sovereign powers.

The central government in a unitary system is responsible for managing national-level concerns, such as foreign relations, national defense and national economic policy. The central ruler or decision-making body controls all aspects of governance, because there are no powers or functions legally reserved to other levels of authority. All areas of government ultimately are under the authority of a single body, so states that have this type of system often have more uniform laws and regulations than federations. The central government also might be responsible for appointing the personnel of lower levels of government, such as regional or provincial governors.

Most monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, are unitary governments.
Most monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, are unitary governments.

Government decisions in unitary states are not necessarily made by the central authority. Some unitary governments delegate some degree of decision-making power to more regional or local authorities in a process called “devolution,” which often is instituted to accommodate ethnic or linguistic minorities who desire greater autonomy. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament have legislative powers for their respective regions. These bodies were created and their powers defined by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Parliament has the power to abolish these bodies or to increase or decrease their powers as it chooses, and the constituent countries of the United Kingdom have no sovereignty of their own.

Modern Germany is composed of sixteen federal states, each of which exercises a significant degree of self-rule.
Modern Germany is composed of sixteen federal states, each of which exercises a significant degree of self-rule.

Other examples of devolution within such a system include the five autonomous regions of Italy and Papua New Guinea's regional and provincial governments. An extreme case is Spain's system of autonomous communities, which remain officially subordinate to the national government but have extensive powers and account for most government spending. Spain sometimes is regarded as a country that straddles the border between a unitary system and a federal state, because many of the regional governments have more authority within their territories than states in most officially federal forms of government do, and the political entrenchment of the autonomous regions would make it extremely difficult for the central government to abolish them despite officially having the power to do so.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a unitary system of government?

The legislative bodies for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have a certain degree of local authority that is not controlled by the government of the United Kingdom as a whole.
The legislative bodies for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have a certain degree of local authority that is not controlled by the government of the United Kingdom as a whole.

A unitary system of government is a sovereign state governed as a single entity where the central government holds supreme authority. Local governments, if they exist, derive their powers from the central government and can be altered or abolished by it. This system contrasts with federal systems where authority is constitutionally divided between central and regional governments. According to the CIA World Factbook, unitary states are the most common form of government, with over 150 countries, including France and Japan, adopting this system.

How does power distribution work in a unitary system?

In a unitary system, all legal power is held by the national or central government, which may delegate powers to local governments at its discretion. The central government retains the right to revoke these powers and can make unilateral changes to local authority. This centralized approach allows for uniform policies and laws across the entire nation, which can lead to more efficient governance and simpler administrative processes.

What are the advantages of a unitary system?

Unitary systems offer several advantages, including a strong, unified government that can enact and implement policies quickly without regional discrepancies. It also ensures consistency in laws and regulations across the nation, which can simplify legal processes and reduce confusion. Additionally, unitary systems can be more cost-effective due to centralized administration and less duplication of services. These benefits contribute to the popularity of unitary systems worldwide.

What are the disadvantages of a unitary system?

Despite its advantages, a unitary system can also have drawbacks. Centralization of power may lead to a lack of representation for local interests and reduced autonomy for regional governments. This can result in policies that are not tailored to local needs and may cause discontent among different regions or communities. Furthermore, a unitary system can be less responsive to local issues and may struggle with administrative efficiency in geographically large or diverse nations.

Can a unitary system be democratic?

Yes, a unitary system can be democratic. The nature of the system—unitary or federal—relates to the distribution of power within the state, not the method by which political leaders are chosen or how political decisions are made. Many unitary states, such as the United Kingdom, operate under a democratic framework where citizens have the right to vote and participate in the political process. The key is that even in a democratic unitary system, the central government has the ultimate authority over the country.

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Discussion Comments

anon930518

A unitary system has positive and negative effects.

anon241466

Devolution takes place in many unitary states. The examples indicated above are of a deeper form than most devolution measures.

All regions, provinces, and communes in Italy, for example, have powers that derive from devolution (they are not therefore simply acting on behalf of the national government/state). The five regions mentioned have "special autonomy", i.e. a deeper form of devolution. This asymmetric devolution is becoming more common (as seen in Indonesia, Philippines etc.).

hangugeo112

@Leonidas226

Italy may have flourished under a plural power system, but it was undoubtedly the strongest it has ever been under Roman domination. Rome was certainly unitary, and consisted of a government in a very central location, dictating rules for a very large and diverse empire.

Leonidas226

Unitary systems often foster no room for healthy competition. In places like Italy, the city-states originally came to be so powerful and innovative because they were constantly trying to get an edge on neighboring towns. The Renaissance and various new ideas and practices were brought to Europe because of this kind of diverse and powerful competition, which brought new things from as far as China.

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    • In a federal system, as used in the U.S., states and local governments retain some sovereign powers.
      By: cphotos100
      In a federal system, as used in the U.S., states and local governments retain some sovereign powers.
    • Most monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, are unitary governments.
      By: Chuck Hagel
      Most monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, are unitary governments.
    • Modern Germany is composed of sixteen federal states, each of which exercises a significant degree of self-rule.
      By: Ekler
      Modern Germany is composed of sixteen federal states, each of which exercises a significant degree of self-rule.
    • The legislative bodies for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have a certain degree of local authority that is not controlled by the government of the United Kingdom as a whole.
      By: juan35mm
      The legislative bodies for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have a certain degree of local authority that is not controlled by the government of the United Kingdom as a whole.