Characteristics of a Unitary System of Government

Written by john gregory
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Characteristics of a Unitary System of Government
Unitary governments retain more power than those of federal republics. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

To people in the U.S., unitary systems of government are foreign phenomena. The United Kingdom, France and Germany are all ruled by unitary governments, as are the Asian countries of China and Singapore. With only one level of government, unitary states have fewer candidates per capita that stand for election in a given year. While debates rage as to the advisability of this system, unitary governments are marked by specific identifiable traits.

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One Sovereign Entity

Unitary governments are their country's only government. Unlike federal designs as exemplified by the United States, having sovereign governments at the state and federal level, unitary countries govern at the regional and local government by means of central government appointees. As in France, the local authorities might be delegated broad powers, but the fact remains that the power source is derived from the central government and not independently by election.

Legal Uniformity

In a federal system, national laws will, ideally, be common throughout the country, but states or provinces may also pass and enforce laws particular to their jurisdictions. No such diversity exists under the unitary regime. Laws and regulations are consistent from city to city, in every village and hamlet. If variations are necessary, they are handed down and approved by officials in the national capital. As a rule, all citizens are subject to the same laws.

Broader Powers

Again, measured against national governments under the federal system, unitary governments are ordinarily endowed with more concentrated power. This is largely because their constitutional responsibilities are broader given the reality of no other sovereign level with which to share power. Hence, national parliaments can establish local jurisdictions by fiat, set their budgets and establish their schools. The United Kingdom House of Commons, for example, directs this type of activity.


Unitary governments usually emerge when local power concentrations are either too few or too weak. If a country is ruled by a despot who is subsequently overthrown in favour of democracy, it will have few local and regional political structures on which to build a federal system. After the fall of Adolph Hitler, Germany faced local office holders who were Nazi appointees rather than home-grown public servants, eager to advance their parochial interests. Without a counterweight to central authority, the successor government adopted a unitary structure, albeit accountable to popular vote.

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