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Federalism Vs Devolution: Which Political System is More Sustainable?

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In order to define whether or not federalism is a more sustainable political system compared to devolution, we must first underline what exactly federalism is, alongside devolution, and what is meant by the term sustainable. Federalism is a political system where state sovereignty is divided amongst two-levels of government which are national and regional bodies. Whereas devolution is the transference of powers to regional bodies with a centralized government maintaining ultimate legal power (sovereignty). Throughout this essay, we shall be referring to the political models of the United States of America and the United Kingdom due to their adaptations of federalism and devolution respectively. For either system of government to be more sustainable than the latter, the political system must fulfil current political goals and resource needs without compromising future objectives, whilst also maintaining the support and approval of the public domain. Therefore, in light of the criteria above, evidence suggests that federalism is partially a less-sustainable political system than devolution due to ignorance created towards national unity, the lack of political accountability and the struggles associated with maintaining societal expectations as the principles of the public evolve to the acceptable standard of 21st century Western ideals towards contentious problems such as abortion, slavery and other valence issues.

Firstly, one issue that reinforces the idea that federalism is a less-sustainable political system than devolution is the ignorance that is created and manifested towards national unity as people seek to unify under regional bodies rather than the entire nation. Where devolution aids diversity due to the fact that sovereignty is held within a centralized government, and their acts will always take priority due to this; individuals living within federal regimes often struggle to collaborate over contentious issues due to the potential varied approach from the regional government to national.

For example, whilst the Supreme Court in the United States of America has voiced that abortion is legal in Roe v. Wade on a national level, states such as Louisiana have introduced significant restrictions in order make it harder for women to be able to have an abortion, such as making it illegal to have an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. De facto, making it almost illegal due to the sheer difficulty associated with achieving one. Citizens also argue that federalism leads to the ignorance towards local governments, not just regional and state. This is showcased in turn out figures of local elections: often being less than 25% citizens ignore compared to devolution; contentious issues such as abortion are always entrusted upon the national government rather than being delegated by regional bodies in order to propose and enforce a uniform approach, sharing the same restrictions between all bodies. Contrariwise, in the United Kingdom abortion was legalized after the Abortion Act 1967; and due to the sovereignty of Parliament, this act cannot be challenged by any institution unless overruled by another act. This also highlighted the process of restrictions, bringing to the foreground an invariable approach amongst devolved state. As a result, devolution encourages uniformity as the only resolution is the one proposed by the national government. This showcases the weak sustainability of federalism compared to devolution as people often unite over either the national body or the regional body, not both. This approach leads to civil unrest as contentious issues are often unanswered, answered poorly, or answered differently compared to the other regional bodies present. With civil unrest, the integrity of a nation’s political sustainability is often criticized heavily as when opinions significantly differ on potential resolutions of issues resolutions cannot be made. Therefore, evidence suggests federalism is less sustainable than devolution.

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One argument for federalism that could be considered a more sustainable political system than devolution is that it aids the prevention of tyranny. Tyranny, which is the cruel and oppressive rule of government, thwarts the principle of political sustainability as the unrestrained exercise of power results in the abuse of authority. This misuse of power leads to instability as the members of the public become outraged due to having limited responsibility in the creation of legislation whilst also losing confidence in their political representatives. Federalism stops tyranny by imposing each institution of a political system with equal legal power, avoiding one institution being more powerful than the others, but also, each governmental body having equal sovereignty in order to deal with issues relevant to the region at each given time. For example, in the United States of America Articles 1 (Legislature), 2 (Executive) and 3 (Judiciary) of the US Constitution explain the roles and responsibility of each institution alongside the limitations of their power. Checks and balances were introduced to also support this. In comparison to regimes that have devolved regional bodies, the institutions in which are present in them can be considered quasi-tyrannical. For example, in the United Kingdom the Executive can be regarded as the most substantial in recent years as seen through Boris Johnson’s use of Henry VII powers in order to illegally prorogue Parliament. This was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, yet Boris Johnson, was not punished. The circumvention of tyranny is vital in ensuring sustainability as it maintains the trust of the electorate, aiding the legislature’s ability to create and scrutinize legislation without civil unrest and frequent criticism from the public regarding the Government’s etiquette. However, whilst tyranny is important to avoid, the 21st century is not as exposed to it as it once was decades ago. Foreign diplomacy and the establishment of political unions have resulted in the tyrannical regimes being phased out through international relations and pressure through trade embargos and other necessary means. The European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) encourage bipartisanship and will often seek to work with regimes with basic democratic regimes rather than regimes plagued with frequent tyranny. Although tyranny is no longer common, it is still extremely important to avoid. So, therefore, federalism is to an extent, more sustainable than devolution due to its ability to avoid tyranny.

Another argument against the sustainability of federalism compared to devolution is through their regional body’s ability to challenge existing laws through the use of the judiciary. For example, as seen through Boumediene v. Bush, foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have the constitutional right to challenge their detention in United States Courts. Whilst this may be seen as a positive, it is undemocratic due to the fact the judiciary is revoking legislation created by an individual who was elected on the basis of his approach to Governmental duties labelled in his State of Union addressal. His plans and policies were labelled, and he was elected on the consent of the people. Therefore, President Bush was acting in their best interest, yet the court decided otherwise. This is a threat to sustainability as civilians would become restless as ultimately the voice of their representative is silenced. On the other hand, devolution grants their institution dedicated to the creation of legislation the ability to revoke their own statutes rather than the judiciary. For example, in the United Kingdom, Parliament can only revoke national laws, which are in the form of primary legislation, such as statutes and case law. Therefore, the electorate remain civil as their representatives are voted in and act on the manifestos in which they campaigned on. If anyone other than legislature attempted to revoke this right, it would be undemocratic as they were the proposals in which the individual was voted in on. Ultimately showing that federalism is less sustainable than devolution as it proposes more civil unrest.

Lastly, another advantage of devolution in providing a more sustainable political system than federalism is that devolution is more flexible, compared to a federal system’s rigidity due to the definition and entrenchment of power between central and regional governments, protected by a codified constitution. For example, devolution in the United Kingdom has resulted in Westminster having the ability to revoke powers when necessary and give them back. This can be seen via Northern Ireland’s autonomy being removed after 1972, when Westminster abolished Stormont invoking direct rule. Due to the political instability of Northern Ireland after Bloody Sunday. In the United Kingdom, devolution allows Westminster to maintain rule when Northern Ireland can no longer rule themselves, ultimately leading to the suspension of their political assembly. This is important as the flexibility of devolution allows the nation to adapt with the current climate of their state. If an issue arises, the elasticity of the political system allows for a quick resolution with limited opposition. Whether that be in response to a societal movement or a global pandemic such as COVID-19, devolution allows for a coordinated approach from central government usually supported by regional and local bodies. In comparison to federalism, the rigidity of their political system limits their ability to quickly adapt their self to changing political and economic conditions. For example, the United States of America took an extra 50 years compared to the United Kingdom in order to ban slavery, otherwise known as the 13th Amendment. Therefore, federalism is not a more sustainable political system than devolution. Devolution allows for states to be context sensitive; promising quick resolutions to issues that arise, with a better coordination of resources in order to deal with these. These quick resolutions allow for political goals to be fulfilled without trouble and also ensures that future objectives are not compromised as these resolutions can be altered as time changes. Whereas, in comparison to regimes which adopt the political system of federalism, the rigidity associated with checks and balances and the avoidance of tyranny result in important national issues being blocked due to the amendment and ratification procedures. The tough approval process combined with the rise of 21st century partisanship warfare from authoritarian politicians, such as President Trump, result in gridlock being extremely common in federal republics. Partisanship warfare results in the disapproval of opposition parties working together in order to pass legislation, and therefore, when gridlock occurs, parties must work together to overcome it. These two ensure further that legislation will not be amended or created in a process already faulted by a rigid amendment procedure. Therefore, federalism is not more sustainable than devolution. Federalism’s process of creating and scrutinizing legislation is long-winded and faulted by frequent check and balances, a rise of partisanship warfare due to a refusal to work with adversaries. Devolution is flexible and therefore aids future goals.

To conclude, federalism is partially a less-sustainable political system than devolution. Whilst federalism has its advantages over devolution due to its ability to significantly protect against tyranny, tyranny is no longer an issue facing the 21st century as it was decades ago. Superstate-like institutions, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) protect against the use of tyranny through foreign diplomacy. Devolution’s ability to fulfil its goals and allocate the necessary resources to achieve future objectives is unparallel to the likes of what the political system of federalism can achieve. This is due to the flexibility and elasticity of devolution compared to federalism. Devolution can also keep up to the standards of the consistently evolving social climate whereas federalism struggles to do so due to its severe entrenchment of principles and policies. For federalism to be more sustainable, it must be capable of continuing to function effectively with pure efficacy for centuries to come. As seen by the evidence above, federalism is not capable of being as efficient as devolution. Devolution is able to do everything that federalism can do, whilst having the safety net present to protect the nation’s inhabitants during times of crisis more effectively than a nation who has adopted federalism. Therefore, federalism is partially a less-sustainable political system than devolution.

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Federalism Vs Devolution: Which Political System is More Sustainable? (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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