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Unitary Government: Definition, Examples, Advantages & Disadvantages

Unitary Government: Definition, Examples, Advantages & Disadvantages
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  • 0:00 What Is A Unitary Government?
  • 0:49 Modern Unitary Government
  • 1:48 Advantages And Disadvantages
  • 2:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Discover the unitary system of government. Explore the nations that use this method of dividing government powers and learn about the disadvantages and advantages of a unitary government.

What is a Unitary Government?

One of the most important questions a new society, government, or nation must ask itself is, 'how will we divide power and responsibility?' Federalism, or the relationship between a central (often national) government and its political sub- units (often states, counties, and provinces, etc.) can exist in many different forms. In a unitary government, this relationship is largely one-sided, with the central government enjoying almost complete control over their smaller local government entities. In a unitary system, almost all power and responsibility is vested in the central government. Local governments may only exercise power through the central government.

This map shows the nations using a unitary system as of 2009, highlighted in dark blue.
Map of countries with a unitary system

Modern Unitary Government

In the modern world, many nations utilize a unitary system of government. For example, in the United Kingdom, supreme political power is held by the Parliament, the legislature of the nation that is located in Great Britain. The other parts of the nation, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, each have their own local governments. However, they cannot make laws that affect the other parts of the nation or refuse to enforce laws made by the Parliament.

This chart shows the government structure of the United Kingdom.
Chart showing Great Britain government structure

Another place we can observe unitary power is in the state governments of the United States of America. While the United States, as a whole, utilizes a federal system in which power is shared between the states and the national government, the 50 states individually function as a unitary system. Through their state legislature and governor, each state makes laws that affect their citizens. County and city governments in each state may make local laws, but are required to enforce and abide by the rules of their state.

Advantages and Disadvantages

As with any government system, there are advantages and disadvantages in a unitary system. One major advantage of a unitary system is that the responsibilities and powers of government tend to be fairly clear-cut. In times of crisis, a clear division of power often results in more swift reactions and assistance than in a form of government where power is divided between multiple government entities. In a unitary system, laws tend to pass more quickly because they only need to be approved by the central authority. In addition, since only the central authority may make laws, there is very little chance that national and state laws, or in the case of the American states, state and local laws, will be contradictory.

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