A POLITICIAN'S tirade against the British union flag as "the butcher's apron" escalated yesterday into a major spat within the Scottish National Party.

Sandra White, the Glasgow MSP at the heart of the row, was accused by her office assistant of falsely denying that she had approved the controversial comments.

Mark Hirst, the researcher and press officer, resigned and placed the blame for the debacle on his former boss. He continues to work at Holyrood for Christine Grahame MSP, but said his "professional integrity has been undermined".

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The spat exposes divisions within the SNP as MSPs battle for the best placings at next year's elections and activists put growing pressure on Alex Salmond's leadership. The Edinburgh Pentlands party circulated a letter to MSPs complaining the Holyrood group is not fighting for independence.

The row over the flag comments follows a press statement responding to a speech made last weekend by Gordon Brown, the chancellor.

He argued there should be more celebration of Britain and its flag. The response said the union flag was described by most Scots as "the butcher's apron", an association with bloodshed at the hands of government forces in Scotland after the 1745 Jacobite uprising and in empire days.

It linked the flag to Highland clearances, suppression of the clans and disproportionate losses of Scottish soldiers in British military adventures, concentration camps in the Boer war, massacres in India and Kenya and the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland - an area from which the SNP has distanced itself.

Ms White, a Glasgow MSP, had retracted the statement and claimed not to have agreed with any of it. But yesterday, Mr Hirst released an e-mail exchange showing the MSP approved the comment and cut out part of the statement.

Ms White, party spokeswoman on equality issues, faces a battle to get re-elected at next year's Holyrood election. Although she topped the Glasgow SNP list in 2003, beating Nicola Sturgeon, the leadership is working to ensure Ms Sturgeon and Bashir Ahmad, a councillor in the city, are next year placed above Ms White.