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The term unitary government refers to a constitutional arrangement by which ultimate political authority is held by the central government of a state. In this system sovereignty is vested in the central government alone.
A unitary state does not necessarily imply that only one level of government exists. In fact, unitary states often have multiple levels of government, and in those states political authority is divided across different territorial levels. Japan is an example of a unitary state. It has a central government and below that forty-seven prefectures and over three thousand municipal governments. France is another example of a state with a unitary government. What makes a state unitary is that the central government has ultimate power over the other geographic levels of government and determines what those governments do, how much money they may spend, the location of their boundaries, and whether they exist. In unitary states, therefore, local or regional governments exist alongside central governments, but their financial and political autonomy and even their right to exist are determined by the central government.
The United Kingdom traditionally has been a unitary state with power heavily centralized in London. In that system local governments exist but are created and controlled by central government statute. An example of that control occurred in 1986 when the Conservative government passed legislation to abolish the metropolitan level of government in many major cities, including London. Since 1997, under a Labour government, there has been a devolution of political power in the United Kingdom. Part of the process has been the establishment of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly with independent authority over a range of policy decisions in those territories. Constitutionally, however, the United Kingdom remains a unitary state. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales were created by acts of Parliament and in theory could be abolished in the same fashion.
Unitary systems stand in direct contrast to federal political systems. A federal system is one in which two or more levels of government exist but those governmental levels have a constitutionally guaranteed right to exist and constitutionally guaranteed powers. Unlike a unitary system, neither level of government can be abolished or reformed without the consent of the other. In the United States, for example, the federal government cannot abolish California or reform its borders without the consent of California. Other examples of federal states are Australia, Canada, India, and Brazil.
Arguments in favor of a unitary system include the fact that it allows for consistency of policymaking and service delivery across the whole state, in contrast to the differences that frequently are found in federal states. This has the potential to create a strong sense of national identity within a state.
- Dickerson, Mark O., and Thomas Flanagan. 2006. An Introduction to Government and Politics: A Conceptual Approach. 7th ed. Toronto: Nelson Canada.
- Wheare, K. C. 1964. Federal Government. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
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