Unitary state

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A map showing the unitary states.
A map showing the unitary states.

A unitary state is a state or country that is governed constitutionally as one single unit, with one constitutionally created legislature. The political power of government in such states may well be transferred to lower levels, to regionally or locally elected assemblies, governors and mayors ("devolved government"), but the central government retains the principal right to recall such delegated power.

In federal systems, assemblies in those states composing the federation have a constitutional existence and a set of constitutional functions which cannot be unilaterally changed by the central government. In some such cases, such as in the United States, it is the federal government that has only those powers specifically delegated to it. In a unitary state, by contrast, any sub-governmental units can be created or abolished, and have their powers varied, by the central government. The process in which sub-government units and/or regional parliaments are created by a central government is known as devolution. A unitary state can broaden and narrow the functions of such devolved (sub-)governments without formal agreement from the affected bodies.

The United Kingdom is a unitary state with a series of parliament-created devolved assemblies, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which were created in between 1998 and 1999. The Republic of Ireland is a unitary state without subnational governments.

The other well known unitary states are France and China. France is a state where the central government runs the entire country and power devolved from the constitution. Local governments are subordinate to the central government. China is also a unitary state formed with the central government direct authority over the provinces and delegated authority to provincial governments. For autonomous territories like the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (or SAR), the Chief Executive is the head of a government with responsibility in all matters other than defence and foreign affairs (see politics of Hong Kong). This is also the case in the Macau SAR.

Some states are hybrids between the federal and unitary models. An example of this would be Australia, which is federal with respect to the six states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia) that have their own constitutional existence, but unitary with respect to the two mainland territories (the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory), whose governments exercise similar powers to the states but by virtue of delegation of powers from the national government.

India is mostly a federal state but under controversial Article 367 of the Indian Constitution, a governor can dismiss a state government.

Most federal states also have unitary lower levels of government. Thus while the United States itself is federal, most (if not all) U.S. states are themselves unitary, with counties and other municipalities having only the authority given (devolved) to them by the state constitution or legislature.

The high proportion of the world's countries which are unitary states results in large part from the fact that most are insufficiently large enough to produce the complexity necessary to demand the devolution of power on distinct internal territories. Thus most of the non-unitary states of the world are of very large size, particularly Russia, Canada, and the United States. This does not imply that large size will invariably result in non-unitary government; China, for instance, due to its political and socio-cultural history, has not seen the rise of a non-unitary arrangement.

List of unitary states

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