Unitary State Research Paper

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1. Definition

The nation state is the conventionally accepted form of territorial organization which originated in Western Europe. The term ‘unitary state’ is a black hole in the political science literature; a taken-for-granted notion for which it is rare to find a definition (an honorable exception is Rose 1982, pp. 51–2). It is all too often treated as a residual category, used to compare unitary with federal states to highlight the characteristics of the latter (Elazar 1997). It is used in this research paper to refer to the politically sovereign, centralized governments of unified nation states. It is an institutional and constitutional notion; politically sovereignty refers to international recognition that a government rules a specified territory. It is centralized because the decision to decentralize can be revoked by the central authority.

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Following Rokkan and Urwin (1982, p. 11), I distinguish between the unitary state and the union state. The unitary state is ‘built up around one unambiguous political centre which enjoys economic dominance and pursues a more or less undeviating policy of administrative standardisation. All areas of the state are treated alike, and all institutions are directly under the control of the centre.’ In the union state ‘integration is less than perfect … (and) … While administrative standardisation prevails over most of the territory … in some areas pre-union rights and institutional infrastructure … preserve some degree of regional autonomy and serve as agencies of elite recruitment.’

2. Types Of Unitary State

There are at least three types of unitary state among liberal-democracies: the Anglo-Saxon, the Napoleonic, and the Scandinavian.

The Anglo-Saxon state draws a clearer boundary between state and civil society, there is no legal basis to the state, and ‘the idea of the state as a thing in itself, an institution independent of and superior to members of society … is alien to British political thinking’ (Rose 1982, p. 47). The Crown represents the sum of formal political authority. The classical example of a unitary state is the British Westminster model characterized by parliamentary sovereignty, strong cabinet government, accountability through elections, majority party control of the executive (i.e., prime minister, cabinet, and the civil service), elaborate conventions for the conduct of parliamentary business, institutionalized opposition, and the rules of debate (Gamble 1990, p. 407, Rhodes 1997, Chap. 1). Combining parliamentary sovereignty and a strong executive makes the British unitary state one of the most centralized in Western Europe.

Britain can also be seen as a union state. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have distinctive administrative arrangements because the English center chose an operating code which was flexible and accommodating, stressing indirect control of the periphery and representation of the periphery in the center (Bulpitt 1983). Constitutional reform in the 1990s reinforced functional decentralization by devolving political authority to the constituent territories of the United Kingdom.

The Jacobin–Napoleonic tradition sees the French state as ‘the one and indivisible republic,’ exercising strong central authority to contain the antagonistic relations between state and civil society (on French political traditions, see Hazareesingh 1994, Chaps. 2, 6) ‘France is a unitary state superimposed on a multinational society.’ Thus the Jacobin tradition stresses the need for a monolithic state apparatus to coerce the fragments of French society into a semblance of order. National uniformity lies at the heart of the link between state and citizen; there is ‘a comprehensive system of central administrative control based on a hierarchical chain of command.’ Regulations multiply. In debates about regional reform, fears are ever present that they will be ‘a real threat to the unity of the state and nation.’ The continuing challenge of government is to find unity out of chaos. So the state moulds society into a whole (all quotes from Hayward 1983, Chap. 2).

Knudsen (1991, p. 96) identifies homogeneity, continuity, a strong state tradition, a high integration between state and society through strong local governments, a tradition for consensual democracy, social democratic parties, and a public sector with universal bureaucracies, little corruption, and comparatively high efficiency as key characteristics of the Scandinavian model of the unitary state. Denmark owes its strong bureaucratic and legal tradition to the influence of its neighbor, Germany. The defining characteristic of a Rechtsstaat is that it is a legal state vested with exceptional authority but constrained by its own laws (Dyson 1980). Civil servants are not just public employees, but personifications of state authority. So Knudsen (1991, p. 37) describes the dominant tradition as ‘a highly bureaucratic, rule-bound and hierarchic structure designed to promote objective decision making on the basis of appropriate laws or regulations in obedience to the current government, whatever its political complexion.’ Denmark differs from the German Rechtsstaat in being decentralized with a strong participation ethic. So local authorities have the right ‘to manage their own affairs under the control of the state.’ They have a high degree of constitutional autonomy; described as ‘spectacular’ by Knudsen (1991, p. 74). The complexities of constitutional reform are an intimidating safeguard of devolution to local government. Denmark is a decentralized unitary state.

3. Centralization

No unitary state is wholly homogeneous. No unitary state is completely centralized. Decentralization is a common strategy for coping with diversity. There are types and degrees of decentralization: deconcentration (prefectoral and functional), delegation, and devolution to both regional and local governments (Rhodes 1992).

3.1 Decentralization

This refers to the distribution of power to lower levels in a territorial hierarchy whether the hierarchy is one of governments within a state or offices within a large-scale organization (Smith 1985, p. 1). Or, more briefly, it refers to the areal division of powers (Maass 1959). So defined, the terms encompasses both political and bureaucratic decentralization, federal and unitary states, and decentralization between levels of government and within units of government.

3.2 Deconcentration

Sometimes referred to as field administration, deconcentration involves ‘the redistribution of administrative responsibilities … within the central government’ (Rondinelli and Cheema 1983, p. 18). A broad distinction can be drawn between prefectoral and functional systems. In the prefectoral system, a representative of the center—or the prefect—located in the regions supervises both local governments and other field officers of the center. This person is the superior officer in the field, embodying ‘the authority of all ministers as well as the government generally and is the main channel of communication between technical field officials and the capital’ (Smith 1967, p. 45). The classical examples are the French prefect and the Collectors or District Commissioners of India. In the functional system, field officers belong to distinct functional hierarchies. The administration of the several policy areas is separate. There is no general, regional coordinator; coordination occurs at the center. This system of multifarious functional territories is typified by England (see Hogwood and Keating 1982).

3.3 Delegation

This term refers to ‘the delegation of decision-making and management authority for specific functions to organisations that are not under the direct control of central government ministries’ (Rondinelli and Cheema 1983, p. 20). Such organizations are referred to as parastatal organizations, nondepartmental public bodies, or quangos (quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations). They include public corporations and regional development agencies. This category is also used to cover the transfer of functions to the private sector or voluntary bodies through marketization, privatization, or contracting-out, cumbersome neologisms which refer to the various ways of delivering ‘public’ services using markets or quasi-markets. Decentralization understood as managerial delegation and marketization fueled major reforms of the public sector throughout the world in 1980s and 1990s (Kickert 1997).

3.4 Devolution

Devolution refers to the exercise of political authority, by lay, mainly elected, institutions within areas defined by community characteristics (Smith 1985, p. 11). Thus, ‘local units are autonomous, independent and clearly perceived as separate levels of government over which central authorities exercise little or no direct control’ (Rondinelli and Cheema 1983, p. 22). Historically, the locus classicus of devolution is said to be British local government, but the most significant trend in the decentralization of political authority is the growth of regional government in Europe (Jones and Keating 1995).

4. For And Against Centralization

Centralization is the root of all evil for advocates of decentralization. The arguments for and against are clear even if there is no foreseeable end to the debate. So centralization promotes territorial justice and equality. Central authorities uphold service standards, rationalize resource allocation, and coordinate local development. There is a need for national plans, especially when resources are scarce, and only the center can ensure territorial equality by the central provision of funds and supervising the uniform implementation of national policies. Centralization is encouraged by financial weakness, national elites, including the bureaucracy, eager to protect their interests, and political instability.

On the other hand, decentralization is often said to be the counterweight to central power. Liberal-democratic theory assumes that decentralization promotes democratic participation, especially local self-government. Nationally, decentralization is said to promote political education, training in political leadership, and political stability. In local government, it promotes the values of equality, accountability, and responsiveness (Smith 1985, p. 20, Sharpe 1970). It is also said to have many managerial or administrative advantages. First, it is seen as a way or surmounting the administrative incompetence of the center; that is, the limits of national planning, by getting closer to problems, cutting through red tape, and meeting local needs. Second, it improved central ‘penetration’ of rural areas, spreading knowledge of, and mobilizing support for, the plan and bypassing obstructive local elites. Third, it encouraged the involvement of various religious, ethnic, and tribal groups, promoting national unity. Fourth, it increased the speed and flexibility of decision-making, encouraging experimentation, and reducing central control and direction. Fifth, it increased the efficiency of the center by freeing top management from routine tasks and reducing the diseconomies of scale caused by congestion at the center. Sixth, it increased the administrative capacity of the localities and regions, and improved the coordination of service delivery. Finally, it institutionalized participation, provided opportunities for many interests to get a ‘stake’ in the system, trained citizens for democracy and politicians for government, and promoted political maturity and democratic stability (paraphrased from Rondinelli and Cheema 1983, pp. 14–16 and Smith 1985, pp. 186–8). Unfortunately, decentralization has not lived up to its promises. The strongest argument for centralization is the failure of decentralization, especially in developing countries, where the main outcome is chaotic inefficiency.

5. Conclusion

To raise the topic of centralization is to raise an emotive issue. Centralization is ‘bad’; decentralization is ‘good.’ There is a clear implication that a federal state is a more decentralized form of government than a unitary state. Any such conclusion should be resisted. A federal state can devolve restricted powers to its constituent governments. The theory and practice of federalism can diverge markedly and, as the case of Denmark shows, a unitary state can devolve considerable powers to local and regional governments. The unitary state cannot remain a taken-for-granted notion. The degree of centralization, and its varied political and administrative consequences, must become matters of empirical inquiry.


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