FIRST minister Henry McLeish provoked a political storm yesterday by endorsing the term ''Scottish government'' to describe his administration in Edinburgh.

The phrase outraged some of his Labour colleagues at Westminster, most notably Tam Dalyell, the anti-devolution campaigner, who claimed it represented ''the break-up of the United Kingdom''.

But the move delighted the SNP, which saw the effective replacement of the term ''Scottish Executive'' with ''Scottish government'' as a significant signpost on the road to independence.

The first minister has been using the term increasingly in recent days and Tom McCabe, his minister for parliament, continued this trend during a briefing yesterday. Asked whether ''executive'' might be ditched formally in favour of ''government'', he admitted the administration was open to the idea.

Mr McCabe, pressed on his persistent use of the phrase ''Scottish government'', said ''we have an open mind on the title'' and stated the formal use of Scottish government was ''not a closed book''. He said of the existing title: ''Some people ask whether that achieves maximum recognition. There is a degree of confusion.''

Earlier, Mr McLeish had told the cabinet that in the fourth phase of devolution there had to be a realisation that the Scottish ''administration or executive, whatever you want to call it'' had to move on from being ''like a Whitehall department to being a Scottish government with all the responsibilities this entails, in particular in terms of finance''.

Titles such as executive, first minister, and presiding officer were laid down in the Scotland act, but the late Donald Dewar said these terms were descriptive rather than prescriptive, although he was happy to retain them.

Peter MacMahon, the first minister's spokesman, later briefed reporters that Mr McLeish had described his administration in the past both as an executive and a government. ''But using the word 'government' involves a question of recognition.

''If you ask people who runs health or education they will say it is the government. I don't think they would say the executive,'' Mr MacMahon said. ''It is just a recognition of what people think.''

The reaction from some Labour MPs at Westminster was immediately hostile.

Mr Dalyell, the author of the West Lothian question, raised the issue at a meeting of the Scottish Labour parliamentary group at Westminster last night.

''Maybe people will understand now why I was so vehemently opposed to devolution for two decades. This is a very important moment,'' he told The Herald.

He said the executive meant one thing, Scottish government another, more akin to a Dutch or Norwegian or Greek government, and the use of such a phrase was not cosmetic.

''A government is a government is a government. Governments have their own foreign policies. This is the break-up of the United Kingdom.

''I am not at all surprised by this because it is in the nature of politicians to regard as most important wherever they are. This is one of these occasions when words are important.''

Brian Wilson, the Scotland Office minister, last night issued a coded criticism of the move, saying: ''Maybe they should look at other countries which have two tiers of government. In Germany, for instance, people have no difficulty in distinguishing between the government and the devolved administration.''

A senior Labour source said the change of name was discussed at last night's meeting of Scottish members at Westminster.

''This is probably several years off. It would require a lot of work and a lot of money to change the logo and everything that goes with it, so soon after the parliament was created. I don't think there would be a great deal of public sympathy for such a move.''

John Swinney, the SNP leader, seized on Mr McCabe's remarks that the devolution settlement would ''evolve and develop'', another Nationalist mantra. He added: ''While the SNP and the overwhelming majority of Scots want to strengthen the Scottish Parliament, Labour are deeply split on the issue.''

Donald Gorrie, Lib-Dem back bencher, backed a name change. ''We need words that distinguish the Scottish cabinet and deputy ministers from Scottish civil servants. The phrase Scottish executive covers both and leads to confusion.''

But David McLetchie, leader of the Scottish Tories, said: ''It just shows that the first minister, far from cherishing the legacy he inherited from Donald Dewar, is trying to dissociate himself from the record of the executive to date. However, this re-branding will not work. You can change the wrapping paper but you can't disguise the shoddy goods.''