Difference Between Federal and Unitary Government

Federal vs Unitary Government

Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, a treaty signed between King John and his barons in 1215, guaranteed rights and privileges of the lords, freedom of the church, and the laws of the land. This treaty has been a landmark in paving the way for all future democratic systems of governance whether unitary or federal. It was Magna Carta that ultimately led to the creation of people’s rule through the instrument of parliament. Many people fail to appreciate the differences between the two forms of governments despite both being democracies. This article attempts to highlight the differences between federal and unitary governments.

Federal Government

Federal system is a very centralized form of government where the federal (or central) government has a high degree of authority. The federal government takes decisions about policies and has a mechanism for the implementation of these policies at the state level. Federal government has the authority to levy taxes and thus controls the money supply. It also decides foreign policy and defense matters while relegating responsibility of law and order in the hands of state governments.

States are administrative units that still have great powers over their subjects. However, states do not have the power to interfere in the working of the federal government. Whenever, there is a question of who reigns supreme, it is the federal law that is termed superior than a state law if there is a conflict between the two and interpretation is required in the Supreme Court.

US is the prime example of a federal system of governance. While states can have, and they, in fact, had laws against homosexuality, but when the federal Supreme Court ruled that these laws were against the individual rights of privacy of the citizens, the laws made by states stood annulled. The same situation prevailed during the civil rights movement when the federal court ruled against Jim Crow laws that upheld segregation between whites and blacks.

Unitary Government

Unitary system of governance is a system where the central government has the supreme powers. This form of governance has powers highly concentrated in the central government. Whatever powers are vested in local governments such as counties are there for the sake of administration and convenience and, in all instances, the laws of the central government are upheld. This system of governance is followed in UK where there is a parliamentary democracy and all laws are national laws and local counties follow these laws in entirety. Yes, counties have their bureaucracies and administrative set ups, but it is only because parliament has given them permission to do so.

In many countries that are smaller than UK, but following a unitary form of government, there are no regional governments. Local councils may have their rules and policies but only if they are not in conflict with the national laws. This form of government is more common in small countries, but China, which is a large country, also has a unitary form of government.

Federal Government vs Unitary Government

• While both forms of governance can be democracies, federal government is less centralized than unitary government

• In a federal government, states enjoy some powers and can make their own laws. However, in unitary government, local governments have no powers and their rules are valid only if they are not in conflict with the central laws.

• Unitary government is seen all over Europe, and it is more common in smaller countries

• UK is the prime example of unitary government while US is the prime example of the federal government.