Archive for May, 2015

Do unitary and federal states differ?

May 22, 2015

Recent elections in the UK with a population of 64 million and Alberta with 4 million have some similarities worth noting. The UK is considered a unitary state with one main level of government, and Alberta a provincial government in a federal state, Canada, with one federal and a series of provincial governments. Each level has designated powers and responsibilities. But in many ways they seem similar.


A closer look at the UK shows it too has federal-like features which became prominent in the recent election. The UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have parliaments with some but not identical powers and responsibilities, making each area somewhat similar to Canadian provinces. Of the three, Scotland has the most powers including some forms of taxation. The others tend to rely on funds collected and distributed by Westminster with spending decisions made locally.


In addition, the UK is divided into counties, each of which has a county council which makes spending decisions regarding public services such as education, transport, strategic planning, emergency services, social services, public safety and waste disposal. In sum, although often considered a unitary state, the UK has levels of government with various revenue and expenditure powers. While international relations, defense, and justice in the UK are responsibilities of the parliament at Westminster, much of the delivery of services like health and education is undertaken by other levels of government. A unitary state perhaps, but with federal-like features.


This contrasts with the Canadian federation where elections take place at both the federal and provincial levels as well in the municipalities. Each has various taxation and borrowing powers as well as funds transferred between levels; each has assigned levels of responsibilities, such as health and education being administered by the provinces. An attempt is made to allow citizens of one province to receive a similar level of service and treatment in other provinces, but the process is messy. And, for example, there is not free trade in some sectors between provinces, although much is made of agreements like the WTO and NAFTA which promote free trade between Canada and other countries.


The differences may not be as clear cut as the terms imply. Both countries have parts which want to separate, Scotland in the case of the UK, and Quebec for Canada. If either does, it will have to establish treaty-type rights with what remains of their former countries. All governments do much the same things regardless of whether they are labeled unitary or federal.