Distinguishing Federal & Unitary Government

Federal vs Unitary Government

The Magna Carta, also known as the Great Charter, was a treaty signed between King John and his barons in 1215. It guaranteed the rights and privileges of lords, the freedom of the church, and the laws of the land. This treaty has been a significant milestone in establishing future democratic systems of governance, whether unitary or federal. The Magna Carta ultimately led to the creation of people’s rule through the instrument of parliament. Despite both being democracies, many people do not understand the differences between the two forms of government. This article aims to highlight the differences between federal and unitary governments.

Federal Government

A federal system is a highly centralized form of government where the federal (or central) government has a high degree of authority. The federal government makes decisions about policies and has a mechanism for implementing these policies at the state level. The federal government has the authority to levy taxes and thus control the money supply. It also decides on foreign policy and defense matters, while the responsibility for law and order lies with state governments.

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

The US is the prime example of a federal system of governance. While states can have laws against homosexuality, when the federal Supreme Court ruled that these laws were against the individual rights of privacy of citizens, the laws made by states were 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

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

In many countries smaller than the 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 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal government is less centralized than unitary government, but both can be democracies.
  • In a federal government, states have some powers and can make their own laws, while in a unitary government, local governments have no powers, and their rules are valid only if they are not in conflict with central laws.
  • The UK is the prime example of a unitary government, while the US is the prime example of a federal government.
Gil Tillard
Gil Tillard
Gil Tillard is an accomplished writer with expertise in creating engaging articles and content across various platforms. His dedication to research and crafting high-quality content has led to over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience. In his personal life, Gil enjoys connecting with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. His curiosity and eagerness to learn from others fuel his passion for communication. He believes that engaging with strangers can be both enlightening and enjoyable, making it easier to strike up conversations and expand one's horizons.


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