Leading article: The Holyrood headache

Click to follow

If the dilemma of whether or not to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, constituted the first serious test of the Scottish National Party-led minority government at Holyrood, it was a test that Alex Salmond's party ended up passing.

Despite the fact that it was Mr Salmond's administration that took the deeply controversial decision to send the terminally-ill Megrahi back to Libya, most of the opprobrium has ended up heaped upon the head of the Prime Minister, after it emerged Gordon Brown made it clear to the Libyans that he wanted to see Megrahi released.

Whether this happy outcome for the SNP government was the result of skill or sheer luck on Mr Salmond's part is open to question. But the affair does, once again, emphasise what a headache devolution and Mr Salmond have become for Westminster in general, and Mr Brown in particular. Even when the Scottish parliament seems to be taking a difficult decision out of the hands of national politicians, it ends up coming back to bite them.

The SNP signalled its intention to maintain the headache yesterday when the party unveiled its new legislative programme. The centrepiece of the programme is a referendum bill on Scottish independence, which the SNP hopes will be held next year. The bill faces an uncertain future since it lacks the support of a majority of MSPs. But Mr Salmond's abilities to make the improbable happen are not to be underestimated. Rather than assuming that the bill will come to nothing, Mr Brown ought to get on the front foot and actively make the case for the continued existence of the union. The same goes for other parties. The Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives dismiss Mr Salmond's referendum as a trifling distraction at a time of economic crisis. Such complacency is a sure way to blow wind into Mr Salmond's sails.

It is not enough for supporters of the union to sit back and wait for Mr Salmond's government to collapse under the weight and contradictions of office. The experience of the past two years tells us they could be waiting a very long time for such an implosion.