Unitary State

There have been dictators throughout the years who ruled their countries with an iron fist, unopposed. They alone were the supreme and sole authority of the country. While all unitary states are not authoritarian, unitary states do have centralized governments. So, what is the definition of a unitary state? What are some global examples? What characteristics do they have? Let's find out!

Unitary State Unitary State

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    Unitary State Definition

    In contrast to a federal state that divides political power between different levels of government, unitary states have a centralized government.

    Unitary state: a state ruled by a centralized government that is the supreme authority within the nation.

    In unitary states, there are no competing forces of power because the centralized government gets the final say in all matters relating to the country. Yet, that does not necessarily mean unitary states are run by absolute rulers. Many unitary states have systems of checks and balances and parliamentary bodies. However, in some states, parliaments may be rubber-stamp parliaments that never disagree with the more powerful executive branch and instead follow along.

    Unitary State Examples

    Most states in the world are unitary states rather than federal states. Just as each federal state has a different type of federalism, the same is true for unitary states.


    France is a classic example of a unitary state. The French state is historically centralized and powerful. For instance, King Louis XIV of France was a supreme ruler who declared that the state and he were synonymous.

    I am the state.

    - Louis XIV

    The French Revolution of 1789 even used the guillotine to remove the royals and other elites from power to create a republic with more democratic representation and less centralization.

    The modern state of France still has a central, unitary state, but there exist regional subdivisions. These regional governments have been granted powers and a degree of autonomy. The central government also appoints the leaders of the regional governments. Yet, deviating from a strict unitary state, the national government is unable to interfere in the regional governments' internal affairs.

    Over the past few decades, the French state has slowly become more and more decentralized, but France continues to be one of the most centralized countries in the world.

    Unitary States Regional Map of France StudySmarterFig. 1 - The administrative regions of France.

    The United Kingdom

    The countries of Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland are unified under a central government located in London. This is known as the United Kingdom. Any autonomy that these countries are granted is a result of the UK Parliament. These countries each have their own legislative chambers and First Ministers. Scotland even has its own legal system. Meanwhile, the administration of England remains a duty of the UK Parliament. While there is a high level of autonomy in the countries of the UK, it is only the result of the UK Parliament granting those powers to the regional governments.

    The United Kingdom is also a constitutional monarchy. The head of the state for the United Kingdom is currently King Charles III. The modern monarch is now mostly a figurehead, as the role is mostly ceremonial.


    China is an intriguing example of a unitary state. While China does have provinces and municipalities to help administer territories, the supreme authority of the country is the leader of the Communist Party of China (CCP). This party seeks to create a communist state by being the vanguard of the proletariat. Thus, there is a strict hierarchy of power, with the supreme leader of the CCP having the final say.

    China has many autonomous regions, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. These regions are afforded some autonomy due to ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences. Yet, the Chinese state remains strong in these areas as the CCP removes any threats of secession.

    With the country spanning one of the largest areas in the world as well as possessing the world's largest population, it is difficult for China to be administered completely by a central government. Thus, China's administrative districts are said to be modeled on federalism with Chinese characteristics. However, the Chinese Communist Party still has a high level of control. All the leaders of the territories are directly appointed by the central government and work towards enacting CCP policy within their territory. While the government is multileveled, it is unified.

    Unitary States Map of China Administrative Divisions StudySmarterFig. 2 - A map of China and its administrative regions.

    Unitary State vs Federal State

    Unitary states and federal states are opposing systems of governance. In a federal state, there is a division of power between different levels of government. These levels of government include the national federal government, the provincial state governments, and, lastly, local governments.

    While the federal state is the highest authority across the nation, substates (called provinces, states, departments, etc. depending on the country) usually can have a certain level of autonomy, as written in the country's constitution. For instance, in the US, the 50 states have a certain, and equal, degree of autonomy and can make state-specific decisions in key areas.

    While unitary states have subdivisions and transfer power to other levels of governance, that is a result of a decision made by the central government that has specifically granted this power. In federal states, specific powers and autonomy are not granted to states through legislation but rather by the constitution of the state.

    Unitary States Map of Federal and Unitary States StudySmarterFig. 3 - Unitary states are in blue and federal states are in green.

    Characteristics of a Unitary State

    The defining characteristic of a unitary state is a strong central government. It may be confusing to learn that unitary states still have administrative substates or provincial leaders. Yet, these substates, which are created or abolished by the central government, only exercise the power delegated to them.

    Another characteristic of a unitary state is the flexibility of its constitution.

    In 2018, China's leader, Xi Jinping, abolished presidential term limits, making it possible for him to stay in power until he dies or resigns.

    This change is evidence of the flexibility of the constitution, which can be changed by the politicians in power.

    Unitary states are also often homogenous states. It is easier for a centralized government to run a country unified by religion, ethnicity, and/or language. For instance, Japan is a very homogenous unitary state with few immigrants or ethnic minorities.

    In most unitary states, the parliament is the highest political body. Of course, there are unitary states with strong leaders, such as China's Xi Jinping or North Korea's Kim Jong Un, but in most unitary states, like the UK, parliament has the most power. The central government is essentially run by the parliament. Prime Ministers are merely the most powerful member of Parliament.

    Decentralized Unitary States

    A decentralized unitary state involves the transfer of power from the central government to a subordinate government organization. It may often be a regional government granted autonomy in managing its local affairs.

    Decentralization is the process of transferring responsibilities or power from a central government to a provincial government.

    Decentralization is a top-down decision that seeks to boost the central government's control to ease management. This process can be beneficial in boosting citizens' participation in political, social, and economic activity. Some political scientists argue that decentralization boosts the efficiency of managing territory by localizing problem-solving. Critics respond that it decreases efficiency by involving more bureaucracy and decision-makers in the process.

    Different Types of Decentralization

    There are a several kinds of decentralization:

    • Political decentralization gives citizens and local politicians greater decision-making power. Advocates state that greater participation in decision-making makes decisions more relevant, informative, and effective.
    • Administrative decentralization reassigns which political level is responsible for providing specific public services. It may be sensible for a state to decide that it is easier for public goods such as electricity, water, and education to be managed on the local level.
    • Fiscal decentralization involves either the transferring of funds from the central government or the raising of local funds to give a substate more authority in the management of local financial decisions.
    • Market decentralization involves the shift of public sector activity to the private sector. This allows responsibilities that used to only be the duty of the government to become the responsibility of businesses or other non-governmental organizations.


    Devolution is a political process in which subdivisions are granted autonomy and functional powers on a provincial basis. Unlike decentralization, which is a top-down process, devolution is often a reluctant process forced upon the central state based on demand.

    The devolution of the USSR was a reluctant process completed out of necessity. This caused the Soviet Union to fracture into many separate republics.

    Politicians do not easily give up power or land, so devolution is often deployed to protect the state and territorial integrity.

    For more information about devolution, check out StudySmarter's resources. There are explanations for the devolution of the USSR, Nigeria, Canada, Spain, Belgium, and Sudan.

    Advantages of a Unitary State

    • In unitary states, it is easier for a central government to control smaller, homogenous territories.
    • Unitary states also are run in a top-down manner, meaning decisions are made from the top. This can speed up decision-making because it avoids sluggish bureaucracy and input from multiple parties.
    • Because specific powers or responsibilities are delegated by the central government, there is clear knowledge of what power is granted to whom and for what purpose. This allows quick responses to crises.
    • Because fewer civil servants are needed, unitary states are also less expensive to run compared to states with multiple levels of government.

    • Unitary states can more easily bolster nationalism and allegiance in their citizenry because citizens only need to owe their allegiance to one organization: the central government.

    For more information about nationalism, check StudySmarter's explanations on Nation versus Nation State and Ethnic Nationalist Movement.

    Unitary State - Key takeaways

    • Unitary states have centralized governments that are the supreme authority in the state. Unitary states delegate autonomy to provincial governments from the central government. They also have flexible constitutions and are usually homogenous.

    • Most states in the world are unitary states, and there is a lot of variance in how each state functions. The UK, France, and China are all unitary states that are very different from each other.

    • Decentralization involves transferring power from the central government to provincial governments. The decentralization can be political, administrative, fiscal, or market. This is done as a managerial decision to boost citizen participation or government efficiency.

    • Devolution is similar to decentralization, but it is usually done out of reluctant necessity. It is done to protect the state.

    • Unitary states are ideal for smaller states. They are also less expensive to run, can make decisions faster, and can bolster nationalism.


    1. Fig. 1 Regional Map of France (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:France_location_map-Regions-2016.svg) by Superbenjamin licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 Map of China's Administrative Regions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:China_administrative.png) by Electionworld licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 Map of the World Federal and Unitary States (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_unitary_and_federal_states.svg) by Lokal_Profil licensed by CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Unitary State

    What is a unitary state? 

    A unitary state is a state with a strong central government.

    What is the unitary state assumption? 

    With this assumption, states are focused on maximizing national interest.

    What is an example of a unitary state? 

    An example of a unitary state is North Korea.

    What is the difference between unitary state and federal state? 

    Unitary states have highly centralized governments while federal states have divisions of power between multiple levels of government. 

    When is a unitary state more efficient?  

    When a quick decision needs to be made, unitary states are more efficient.

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