What Is A Unitary State? Pros, Cons, Examples

Overall, there are no clear-cut frontiers within decentralised governance systems. Rather, there are different degrees of decentralisation, depending on the extent of political, administrative and financial powers that have been transferred to lower levels of government, and on the balance of central-subnational relations. Since 1966, Nigeria has had several constitutions, each giving broad—and exclusive—powers to the central or federal government, to the detriment of its constituent units.

Federal countries may not be the most decentralised (“centralised federalism”) and some unitary states may be more decentralised than federal ones. An example of a unitary government is the United Kingdom overseeing Scotland. 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. A unitary state is a state governed as a single entity in which the central government is ultimately supreme. Unitary states stand in contrast with federations, also known as federal states.

Such a system, in other words, could help the central government keep its priorities straight. Alas, as Professor Diamond and just about anyone else who has studied the subject would readily acknowledge, the promise and practice of federalism are frequently at odds. A federal republic does not always train citizens and their elected officials better than does a unitary democratic state. Nor are federations always better at preserving liberties, managing conflicts, innovating, or curbing “big” government. It is common belief that a unitary form of government is applicable for a less diversified society whereas Federalism is applicable for a more diversified society.

In Korea, the local government system comprises 17 educational offices, which are independent elected entities. In the Netherlands, Regional Water Authorities are subnational government bodies and their autonomous tasks are defined in the Regional Water Authorities Act . 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. In a unitary state, the national government has total authority over all of the country’s other political subdivisions (e.g. states). It is regarded as a sacred agreement, and therefore, its rigidity should be maintained.

The breakdown of subnational expenditure by economic function provides a measure of the subnational government role in several areas (Figure 2.10). Education represents the largest spending area, accounting for 25% of subnational government expenditure on average in the 32 OECD (4% of GDP). Health is the second highest budget item, accounting for 18% of subnational expenditure (2.9% of GDP). General public services and social protection sectors are the third largest subnational budget item, both representing 14% of subnational spending (2.3% of GDP). Just after social protection comes economic affairs sector (primarily transport, but also commercial and labour affairs, economic interventions, agriculture, energy, mining, manufacturing, construction, etc.).