THERE has been growing opposition to the dawn raids used to deport failed asylum seekers in Scotland and in September First Minister Jack McConnell said he would seek a protocol with the Home Office on the issue. But UK immigration minister Tony McNulty subsequently ruled out a special agreement with the Scottish Executive and stated that any changes to the manner in which dawn raids were carried out would be UK-wide.

WHEN immigration police in body armour broke down the door of the Vucaj family in Drumchapel, Glasgow, on September 13, they didn't realise they were trampling all over the delicate constitutional conventions that are supposed to ease relations between Holyrood and Westminster. But they were.

The expulsion of the Kosovan asylum seekers provoked one of the most serious confrontations between the Scottish Office and Whitehall since 1999. For many it summed up the inadequacy of a devolution settlement which allows the Scottish parliament to voice its unanimous condemnation of dawn raids, but also allows the UK government to disregard it.

In the briefing war that followed, the Home Office made little attempt to placate Scottish sentiment. Instead, it bluntly contradicted the right of the Scottish Executive to interfere in the handling of such repatriations in future.

Dawn raids had become a highly charged emotional issue in Scotland. The Vucaj eviction was only the latest in a succession of increasingly brutal repatriations, including the removal of the Ay family earlier in the year.

It was all part of the UK government's "robust" solution to the asylum problem. But the Children's Commissioner for Scotland, Kathleen Marshall, said that dawn raids amounted to the "terrorising of children" and were "a clear breach of human rights".

The Scottish communities minister, Malcolm Chisholm, agreed and stated publicly that they were ''over the top, unnecessary and should end''. Pupils at Drumchapel High School mounted a highly effective campaign against dawn raids, and had - they believed - been assured that First Minister Jack McConnell would demand a protocol to abolish them. Girls from the school even won an accolade at the Scottish Politician Of The Year awards.

So, there can be no excuse that the Home Office didn't appreciate the strength of Scottish feeling on the issue. There is not the same political heat over immigration here and Scottish civic sentiment had been appalled at the handling of asylum seekers and their children in places like Dungavel detention centre in 2004.

Then, McConnell had tried to insist that Dungavel was not the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. That immigration and asylum were UK responsibilities and that the Scottish parliament had no locus. He was constitutionally correct. But if the Scottish Executive wasn't responsible for the welfare of children in Scottish detention centres, critics asked, who was?

This time, McConnell did not plead that the Vucaj incident was nothing to do with him. He decided, instead, to express clearly and forcible the views of the Scottish parliament as expressed in the motion passed on September 22, which expressed "widespread concerns about practices such as so-called 'dawn raids', handcuffing of children, and the removal of children by large groups of officers in uniform and body armour". Parliament was told that that Scottish ministers had had an "open and uninhibited" dialogue with their Home Office counterparts.

So when the Home Office delivered its rebuff to McConnell, it was hitting him right in the credentials.

There is evidence that McConnell was led up the garden path by the Home Office, which told him what he wanted to hear in private, but wouldn't keep to the script in public. Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his eyes on The Sun and Daily Mail, was not prepared to countenance any regime which might appear soft on asylum seekers. And that applied in Scotland as well as England.

The First Minister could scarcely disguise his fury at the way his modest proposals for making compulsory repatriation more humane were stamped upon by minister of state for immigration, nationality and citizenship, Tony McNulty. "Cack-handed" was how one of McConnell's aides described the behaviour of the Home Office briefing machine. And while McConnell received a belated acceptance that in future social work services would be involved at an earlier stage in forcible repatriations, he secured no promise that the character of the raids would change. The matter is to be reviewed in the spring, when it will become clear whether or not McConnell has got a result or a brush-off.

But the Drumchapel pupils were in no doubt. McConnell had been all mouth, they said, and had not behaved honourably. The opposition parties in parliament lambasted McConnell for his feebleness and his mendacity. Many Labour MSPs were privately appalled and Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition were privately contemptuous.

EVEN Tory MSPs like Bill Aitken were heard complaining - on BBC TV - that the Scottish parliament had been "humiliated" and that McConnell should have stood his ground against Westminster. That would have been almost inconceivable only a few years ago, when it would have been regarded as proto-nationalism to have demanded a separate immigration regime in Scotland. The asylum issue became part of the general debate in Scotland in 2005 about new powers for the Scottish parliament. The Tories have now joined that debate, leaving Labour as the only party standing unequivocally for the status quo.

But for how much longer? The Vucaj episode drove a deep wedge between the Scottish Executive and Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster, who made no attempt to hide their contempt for the First Minister's handling of the affair. Scottish Labour MPs, such as Tom Harris and John Robertson, lined up to praise the system of dawn raids. Robertson, the MP for Drumchapel, said on BBC Scotland's politics show that handcuffing teenage girls in their nightclothes was necessary "for their own safety".

For those not actually pickled in the culture of west of Scotland Labour, this was must have seemed incomprehensible. Surely, elected representatives of the same political party are expected to agree in public, even when they don't in private. Perhaps Labour in Westminster have yet to come to terms with the reality of devolution. Perhaps it is resentment at the coverage which the Scottish parliament has received in the Scottish press, or maybe it's just personal.

Whatever, this lack of respect for the views and sentiments of the Scottish parliament and its First Minister is nothing new. It goes back to the row about the pounds-23 million allowances rebate in 2001 after the Scottish parliament introduced free personal care for the elderly. Then there was McConnell's Fresh Talent initiative, his plans to meet Scotland's population deficit by allowing more immigrants to come here to work. They were summarily squashed by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

But times change. In 2001, Jack McConnell was a fresh face in Bute House and easily patronised by Labour MPs at Westminster. But many senior Scottish Labour figures have moved on - George Foulkes, Brian Wilson, Lewis Moonie - leaving relatively new and inexperienced MPs in their wake. Meanwhile, McConnell has visibly gained in confidence in the past year. He is no longer prepared to be dismissed as a pretendy leader of a pretendy Scottish parliament. The Scottish Executive and Holyrood are becoming more confident and more experienced in the ways of government.

The dawn raids affair will remain as one of the key moments in the post-devolution era. The First Minister, faced with a choice between a UK ministerial edict and the views of the Scottish parliament, chose to side with the latter. No longer is the constitutional division of powers immutable. Increasingly, the Scottish parliament is starting to speak with its own voice and expecting the UK to listen.