Still leader of the Scottish Thingummy

With rebranding all the rage (will children feel the same about a cartoon character called Consignia Pat?), Henry McLeish and his ministers thought they would play the name game. But their suggestion that the "Scottish Executive" should be retitled the "Scottish Government" caused such a furore that Scotland has been left with an identity crisis.

Whatever we call the Scottish Whatsit from now on, the First Minister provoked an orgy of vicious name-calling among Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster that has damaged their collective image and raised questions about their commitment to Scottish devolution.

Even connoisseurs of the political insult have been taken aback by the virulence of their response. MPs and ministers were said to be lining up to ridicule McLeish's "stupid gaffe", and a routine meeting of Scottish backbenchers in the Commons erupted in furious criticism of the McLeish team's "daft idea".

One "senior figure at Westminster" sneered: "They can call themselves the White Heather Club if they want, they will never be the Scottish government."

Another "senior minister", who (naturally) would not put his name to the insult, gave the most poisonous response: "The trouble with Henry is that he is thick and is not a proper-thinking politician."

There is more than personal animus against McLeish. Scottish MPs are jealous of the attention the Scottish Parliament has attracted in its first year, and they fear there will be a cull of numbers to reflect their diminished responsibilities. Any increase in the status and powers of the Scottish Thingamajig heightens that possibility. More immediately, they worry that the gaffes and goofs in Holyrood's first year will impact on their majorities in the coming general election.

Their fears seemed justified when the Scottish National Party welcomed the suggested name-change, seeing it as another small step on the road to independence. The redoubtable Margo MacDonald said that Westminster critics should themselves be renamed WMPs, pronounced "wimps".

What's in a name? The idea was floated by the Parliament Minister, Tom McCabe, because the title "Scottish Executive" confused politicians with the Civil Service. In the ensuing drama, No 10's statement that there was no question of a "Scottish government" was taken as "humiliation" and a "slap-down" for McLeish. The vultures gathered for what was billed as a make-or-break First Minister's Questions. However, the crisis evaporated because of the weakness of opposition leaders and a boldly unrepentant stance by McLeish. After 15 minutes on the phone to Downing Street, he had the all-clear to assert: "We ARE a government." Unspoken was the peace-making formula, "Scottish government within the United Kingdom" (after all, even the smallest council is "local government").

McLeish is accused of trying to undo the late Donald Dewar's more cautious approach to devolution. In the drafting of the Scotland Bill, "government" was specifically ruled out because it would fudge the supremacy of Westminster in macro-matters.

The suggestions for a new informal title have been imaginative. Given the parliament's principal product, Scottish Gas would be apt, but it is already taken. Scotgov Lite sounds modern and conveys its low-calorie powers. The McNumpties, sounding like a children's television show, is appropriate, given that the televised parliament follows seamlessly after Playdays and Fireman Sam. The People's Provisional Government of Tartania was thought to go a wee bit too far. The Scottish Conservative leader, David McLetchie, suggested altering the name of the "Scottish Cabinet", in case it was mistaken for a drinks cupboard.

McCabe has ruled out changing First Minister to Prime Minister "at this stage". So we will have to wait for "The Gaffer", or the generally understood "Heid Bummer" (although that may be too close to the defamatory "Heid Banger"). Perhaps something from the national bard, Rabbie Burns, would be appropriate: "Great Chieftain o' the Puddin' Race".

There is the serious point that this is more than a question of semantics. Devolution is still evolving, and roles are being redefined - especially by McLeish, who is proving more radical than even his supporters expected. If anything, he has emerged from the flurry with his image enhanced. His critics, not least the spiteful and self-obsessed Westminster MPs, have given him a new reputation as Scotland's champion against London interference. He is able to argue that the real threat to the Union comes from the enemies within who try to drive a wedge between Edinburgh and Westminster.

The name-calling is not over. As one Scottish minister said murderously: "Those bastards in London have never really understood devolution." But, despite a wobble, McLeish is firmly in charge of the Scottish Whatsitsname.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up