Federalism in A Level Politics: A Comparison to Devolution

Federalism and devolution are two distinct systems of governance that have been adopted by the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of federalism in A Level Politics, outline its features, benefits, and drawbacks, and make a comparison to the British system of devolution.

What is Federalism?

Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and regional or state governments. In the United States, it is a fundamental principle enshrined in the Constitution.

Under the US federal system, powers are divided between the federal (central) government and state governments. The federal government is responsible for national defence, foreign policy, and regulating interstate commerce. In contrast, state governments have authority over policy areas like education, healthcare, and transportation. This means that policy and priorities vary between states.

Features of Federalism

There are several key features of federalism in US politics:

  • Dual Sovereignty: Federalism establishes dual sovereignty, meaning that both the federal government and state governments have their own separate powers and responsibilities, as we’ve previously discussed.
  •  Shared Powers: The system involves the sharing of powers between the federal government and state governments. Some powers are exclusive to the federal government, some are exclusive to the states, and others are shared.
  •  Supremacy Clause: The Supremacy Clause in the US Constitution establishes that federal law is the supreme law of the land, meaning that state laws cannot conflict with federal laws.

Benefits of Federalism

Federalism offers several benefits in US politics:

  • Flexibility: The system allows for flexibility in governance, as different states can experiment with different policies and approaches to address the needs of their residents. They can also prioritise some policy areas depending on what is important to their citizens.
  •  Checks and Balances: There is a system of checks and balances, as power is divided between the federal government and state governments. This helps prevent the concentration of power in a single authority. State governments must also approve amendments to the Constitution, meaning the federal government cannot simply push through amendments.
  •  Local Representation: Federalism ensures that regional interests and concerns are represented, as state governments have the authority to make decisions that are specific to their jurisdictions.

Drawbacks of Federalism

While federalism has its benefits, it also has some drawbacks:

  • Inconsistency: The division of powers between the federal government and state governments can lead to inconsistencies in policies and regulations across different states.
  •  Coordination Challenges: Coordinating actions and policies between the federal government and state governments can be challenging, particularly in times of crisis or when addressing national issues.
  •  Power Struggles: The system can sometimes lead to power struggles between the federal government and state governments, as each seeks to assert its authority.

Comparison to Devolution in the UK

While federalism is the system of governance in the United States, the United Kingdom has a system of devolution. Devolution is the transfer of powers from a central authority to regional or local governments. In the UK, this occurred in the late 1990s, with power devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England.

Unlike federalism, the UK’s system of devolution does not involve a written constitution or a division of powers between different levels of government. Instead, devolution is based on legislation and agreements between the central government and regional governments. This means that devolution in the UK can technically be ended with a simple Act of Parliament.

Devolution in the UK has allowed for the establishment of regional parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England. Each of these legislatures and governments has differing levels of power. This is different to the American system in which each state is treated as equal.


Federalism in US politics is a system of governance that divides powers between the federal government and state governments. While it offers benefits such as flexibility and checks and balances, it also has drawbacks such as inconsistency and coordination challenges. In comparison, the UK’s system of devolution transfers powers from the central government to regional governments. Both systems have their own unique features and implications for governance and allow for regional voices to be heard.

Our USA Politics course has a range of resources on topics including federalism and the Constitution. Sign up now to master USA politics for A Level Politics.

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Federalism in US Politics

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