Politics 2

Federal and Unitary States

A federal state has a central government with autonomous sub-national governments. Each level of government has certain responsibilities which another authority cannot intervene with. Devolved power cannot be taken back. These states tend to be larger with more plural societies and deep social cleavages. Federalism can help prevent oppression from the central government and can protect minorities.

A unitary state has a single powerful government. Power can be devolved but can be taken back. They tend to be smaller with more homogenous societies.

1 of 8

US and European Federalism

US Federalism - comes from an attempt to strengthen national institutions to prevent the confederation of states from breaking apart (Europeans were trying to trade states off against each other). 

  • 10th Amendment of constitution - states have powers not granted to federal government (but they can’t make treaties, war).
  • BUT, Article VI Supremacy Clause means that federal law is superior to state law. 
  • The US went through different types of federalism. 1830s-1930s - Dual Federalism in which much responsibility was left to the states and they prevented national legislation e.g. fraud and child labour legislation in the Supreme Court. Between 1930s and 1970s, US transitioned more to cooperative or co-ordinate federalism in which federal and state governments work together on policy. National government uses grants-in-aid to encourage state implementation of national goals. From 1930s onwards, there was new federalism led by the Republicans - wanted to return control to states could be seen as a return to power for states, BUT many mandates were put forward with no funding for states and local governments. 

European federalism - comes from an attempt to defend the rights of constituent states from central government. 

2 of 8

Devolution and Decentralisation

Devolution - process in which political, administrative and judicial powers are transferred from the central government to regional authorities. Results in reduced power at the centre and greater autonomy for the region. 

In the UK, the state following devolution has a ‘quasi-federal’ look. UK is a constitutionally decentralised union - Watts sees that in a sense it is unitary in that the central government has supreme authority but it also incorporates sub-national levels of government which have their own autonomy. 

Decentralisation - transferring decision-making powers from the central state to sub-national levels of government. 

3 of 8

Right to succession/ 'Right to decide'

  • Texas vs. White 1869 - the Supreme Court ruled that the US was “an indestructible union” and for a state to secede, this would be treason.
  • Scotland requested a referendum on the issue and was granted it. 
  • BUT, when Alex Salmond met David Cameron in 2012, he had wanted to put a third option on the ballot: ‘devolution max’ (Scotland would have full fiscal autonomy except for over matters of defence and foreign affairs). The Scottish Social Attitudes survey of 2014 found that 31% of voters would have backed ‘devolution max’ while 31% supported independence. Has polarised voters, either to support the status quo or full independence. And, an unwritten constitution has meant that the Scottish government is reliant on Westminster agreeing to another referendum - has to have a level of pop support. 
4 of 8

Immigration - US

  • US Constitution gives Congress the power ‘to establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization’. In 1875, the state of California allowed the state’s commissioner to regulate immigration, but the Supreme Court ruled that the passing of immigration laws was a federal matter. Continued for a long time though recently there has been a surge in state-level immigration policies.
  • Krane (2007) suggests that the high number of state-immigration laws passed in the Bush presidency shows a conflict between federal and local government and was brought about by Bush’s inaction.
  • Adams and Newton (2009) disagrees and argues that although some states (Arizona, Colorado) have taken a tough line on immigration, for the most part states have passed laws to increase cooperation with the federal government. US states can be seen as the ‘laboratories of democracy’ which are important policy innovators. 
5 of 8

Immigration - Scotland

  • Immigration is a ‘reserved’ policy which is managed by Westminster according to the UK points-based system. Scotland takes a different approach to immigration. 
  • John Curtice and Ian Montagu (2018) found that attitudes in Scotland and England towards immigration do not differ. 
  • Hepbum and Rosie (2014) suggests this is because politics in Scotland generally occupies a centre-left, pro-immigration position. Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats have taken more progressive and open approach towards immigration compared to their UK counterparts. The SNP particularly talks of immigrants as ‘New Scots’ and wants to encourage ‘fresh talent’ to move there. Have tried to influence Westminster policy and gain a Scotland-centric policy.
  • BUT, it is difficult to know the effect of Brexit. Could trigger a second ref. or extended powers for Scotland. 
  • John Curtice (2016) claims that a second referendum wouldn’t necessarily be in favour of independence as the Scottish people don’t have a strong commitment to the EU and those who voted leave have become increasingly sceptical of the EU.  
6 of 8

Policy divergence - US

Great variation in law from state to state. 

  • E.g. marijuana
  • The federal government consider marijuana a Schedule One substance, the most restrictive drug category. In 1996, California was first state to legalise medical marijuana (Proposition 215). Many states have followed in the wake of this decision and have even legalised recreational marijuana. 
  • Ferraiolo (2008) views this state marijuana legislation as showing a visible conflict between state and federal law because state initiatives have challenged federal policy. 
  • In 2005, the SC ruled that medical marijuana state initiatives would protect patients from federal prosecution. 
  • The amount of variation in laws between states shows they have a lot of power but must be put in context. USA has 230+ years of state rights and Scotland was only given devolved powers in 1999. 
7 of 8

Policy divergence - Scotland

  • Scotland has exerted some policy divergence
  • Abolished university fees; made prescriptions free; banned fracking; introduced the ‘smoking ban’ earlier than rUK; free care for the elderly. 
  • MacKinnon (2015) points particularly to the second phase of devolution from 2007 onwards in which ideological differences and political outcomes have widened. The Scottish devolved government has emphasised the values of ‘civic Scotland’ and promoted social justice. 
8 of 8


No comments have yet been made

Similar Government & Politics resources:

See all Government & Politics resources »See all Federalism resources »