David I. Mc Williams – Views


Territorial distribution of power

This essay will focus on the effectiveness of federal and unitary systems of government as a means of arranging the territorial distribution of power. Looking predominantly at the unitary system of Britain and the comparisons between the American federal system in order to assess the advantages and disadvantages of each structure.

The legitimacy of each system lies within the constitutional framework that determines the nature of relationships and the distribution of power between levels of government in each nation (Haywood, 2007, P.164). The role of an efficient central government within each federal of unitary system is to secure stability and enable individual expression within regions. The federal system of the United States is a form of multi-level governance that shares sovereignty as well as power between central and state governments, whereas in the U.K, power may be decentralised or devolved but sovereignty is retained squarely within the centre. Forms of governance found in liberal democracies aim to retain nationalism as well as allow for ethnically or geographically diverse regions or localities an element of autonomy from the centralised power base.

Federalism is almost always a compact between separate units pursuing a common interest” (Hague & Harrop, P.284) and the constitution of the United States created a federal system adapted from the confederation of states within North America. The American confederation unlike federalism allowed for the dominance of states to take president over the central power, this lack of central authority weakened and fragmented the nation as state interests presided over the national objective. “The case for federalism is that it offers a natural and practical arrangement for organising large states” (Hague & Harrop, P.291) as within a federation it is the “protected position of the states, not the extent of their powers” which distinguishes them (Hague & Harrop, P.282). The formation of a federal system and the ability of a centralised power to delegate tasks to lower levels while still retaining overall power is in the interests of larger nations, allowing for economic stability and competition as well as consolidation of resources.

Federalised nations have to “secure an efficient central government and preserve the unity, while allowing free scope for the diversities, and free play to the members of the federation” – Lord James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (1889) (McKay, 2005, P.59).

Duel federalism was envisaged to enable state and national governments to divide the functions and responsibilities of government, compartmentalising the running of a nation and acting independently of each other (Hague & Harrop, P.285). This separation of power and authority is not however an example of the multi-level governance which has since developed in the United States which sees both horizontal and vertical cooperation between tiers of government.

The federal system of the United States incorporates the entire nation and grants legislative powers to state authority in order to create a body politic within each individual state. The role of the federal government, “to lay and collect taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and welfare of the United States” (Hague & Harrop, P.285) ensures that defence and prosperity as a whole lies in Washington.

The federal system is a mechanism for political and social participation whether it is a committee, a manager, or an elected official, a level of direct responsibility and accountability lies with local government. The allocation of responsibilities enables the lower tiers of government to enact change and make a difference within the community (Hague & Harrop, P.282), and if the lower tiers of government have the resources and ability they may act in the interests of the state as a whole (Hague & Harrop, P.282). Multiple tiers of government allow more points of access to the decision making process and a forum for private interests and pressure groups (Hague & Harrop, P.281).

The advantage of a federal system such as the United States gives the economic advantages of scale, promotes activity and trade (Hague & Harrop, P.285), as well as cultural and ethnic diversity while retaining military strength. The federal system produces competition between states as well as inter-state with the legislative power to create optimum business conditions. The extraordinary diversity of the American federal system, from state levied taxation, to the running and operation of education, is mainly funded by local government, (McKay, 2005, P.59) and State laws governing the scale and execution of policy has therefore given effective autonomy to individual states.

The power which state legislation possesses can create opportunities through state funding and backing, this ensures that the economic prosperity of the state is able to sustain regional development and shoulder welfare responsibilities. The role of central government allows for the state welfare bill to be within the remit of the state. Along with health, social and educational responsibilities, transport and public services are also under local government authority (McKay, 2005, P.62), these domestic policies under local control remain an effective measure of the territorial distribution of power. This creates a system of governance that sees the allocation of funds from a national to a state level, but allows for the diversity of planning and implementation of policy.

In the United States there are a number of local or regional government bodies that form part of the social structure, this allows them to implement legislation where the federal government does not recognise any financial or political value such as environmental and personal rights of citizens. This diversity allows for a greater feeling of personal contact with government and creates direct accountability. Local government may operate the state as a fiscal commodity but it creates market prosperity and generates profit within the public and the private sector. “The flow of money became more favourable to the centre as income tax revenues grew with the expansion of both the economy and the workforce” (Hague & Harrop, P.290), therefore, income taxed at a national level ensures continuity between state citizens (Hague & Harrop, P.290) and maintains the fiscal power of the central authority. Profit from the private sector creates stability and prosperity within the state as a whole and corporate legislation creates economically diverse states with strong fiscal autonomy, which in turn brings revenue into the purse of the central government as in most federations it receives the “lions share of total public revenue” (Hague & Harrop, P.290). States encourage diversity as it solidifies regionally diverse pockets of the population; this is exemplified in a nations willingness to allow political and social consideration to fringe areas of society.

The unitary system employed in the United Kingdom allows sovereignty to be retained within the leadership and cabinet of central government as legislation is conceived and implemented from Westminster. Without a codified constitution setting out the various rights of individual countries or regions all legal rights are retained by central government, this has the ability to create a system of governance that controls both policy and legislation at a national level. Therefore, “In most unitary states, the national legislature has only one chamber since there is no need for a second house to represent the provinces” (Hague & Harrop, P.293).

Recently within the UK, individual countries have been granted extended powers through devolution ensuring that sovereignty is retained at the centre whilst specific powers are handed over to individual nations as “the balance between the concentration and diffusion of political power” (Hague & Harrop, P.292) in the United Kingdom has changed over the last 25–35 years (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.327). Scotland has become the benefactor of the most progressive devolved powers within the United Kingdom. Devolved powers include, health, education and economic development as well as public protection and law (McGarvey & Cairney, 2008, P.2); this allows the Scottish Parliament to make decisions on matters that directly concern them. The overall powers retained by Westminster allow for effective control over global issues and fiscal policy. Powers devolved are recognised as powers retained as at any given time they may be repatriated to the centre, this safeguard creates an overall check on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. The asymmetrical distribution of territorial powers within the UK are due to Ireland and Scotland having historically showed a greater desire for a form of home rule and to disengaging from central policy.

Unitary government is often decentralised” (Hague & Harrop, P.293) and national policy is implemented at a state level (Hague & Harrop, P.293). The formal institutions of local government consolidate the “whole process of delivering local services and governing communities” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.308) “through complex inter-relationships of public, private and voluntary bodies” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.308). The method of governance which sees the central authority “steering’ rather than ‘rowing” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.308) domestic policy within the UK delegating the responsibility of education, social services, environmental health and local amenities to local government (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.309). Responsibilities were pushed into the private sector under the Blair government, employing hospital and primary care trusts to operate public services, public transport run by private companies (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.309) and public and social housing increasingly within the sphere of private and voluntary housing associations. De-centralising power had the effect of public services and property being managed and run mainly by private interests. Under Major and Blair, capital investment from the private sector allowed private interests to bear responsibility for local services while generating profit (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.323).

The effectiveness of the unitary system allows for swift legislation and implementation of policy in the public interest, although public protection is still driven and implemented by local government. Under New Labour, Blair “emphasised partnership with private and voluntary sectors, policy networks, and ‘joined-up government” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.327), this enabling form of government (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.335) sees all parties committed to “the welfare state and Keynesian demand policies” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.329). Swift legislation is checked by the two-tier British parliamentary system, and de-centralisation of government within the UK enables the diffusion of political friction at a national level in order for the UK to remain a player in the global economy.

As opposed to a fused system of uniform policy and implementation (Hague & Harrop, P.299), the duel system of local government maintains the formal separation between local and central government as well as building direct links between local administrations and central government (Hague & Harrop, P.296). “The distinction between local government and local power is fundamental” (Hague & Harrop, P.299). The relationship between multi-level governance may be collaborative or competitive, with members uniting over particular departments or services, yet local government members also have their “own interests to advance and defend” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.314) with American radicals arguing that “decision making systematically favours business interests” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.316). It can be argued that many of these regional developments and local initiatives take local governance further away from communities and place them under the control of private interests when they are deemed “too small for the efficient delivery of local government services” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.321). Rising taxation in order to pay for public spending, lack of employment and rising inflation (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.329) only breeds distrust and the disintegration of public services.

Criticisms of devolving powers as a means of arranging the territorial distribution of power include the slow dissolution of sovereignty and the power principle. The de-centralisation of power within a unitary system tends to pit one region or division against another. Regional prosperity, national investment and an active employment sector ensure prosperity, whereas delays caused by hierarchy and conflict within parties (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.315) only reaps failure. In Scotland, the effect of devolving powers may lead to greater autonomy and potential sovereignty. The intent of Westminster to solidify the UK by granting effective control to the Scottish Parliament may aid the region in implementing a nationalist agenda.

Federalism is a recognised solution to the problem of organising the territorial distribution of power” (Hague & Harrop, P.284) enabling central government to collect revenue without the need to re-invest in infrastructure at a local level, this enables the national government to re-direct capital and resources towards a nationalist agenda. Geographical resources, whether fossil fuels or agriculture and fishing, determine both local politics, and the distribution of finance at a national instead of a local level. With defence and foreign affairs remaining in the federal sphere as well as the macro-economic management of the nation (McKay, 2005, P.62). Classical federalism (McKay, 2005, P.62), which enabled the national and state governments to act independently of each other has given way to a more cooperative form of federalism based on multi-level collaboration and communication acting in the interests of the whole (Hague & Harrop, P.288).

Both the federal system in the United States and the unitary British system have reformed while retaining centralised power. In the case of the United States, gaining tighter control on the states through the mechanism of federal government in the wake of September 11th in order to maintain national security. The “federal government has effectively usurped the powers of the states and now plays the dominant role in American government” (McKay, 2005, P.59) and “the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Westminster Parliament and power of the old centralised core executive focused on the Cabinet and Whitehall” (Coxall, Lynton & Leach, 2003, P.41) has devolved powers in order to diffuse regional tensions and retain sovereignty; this may lead to yet another form of federalism where sovereignty and power are shared in order to survive.


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