THE Conservative leader William Hague tried to stop the historic referendum on Scottish devolution on September 11, 1997 because of the death of Princess Diana, secret government papers reveal.

Restricted files obtained by the Sunday National show that William Hague, the Tory opposition leader, wrote to prime minister Tony Blair days ahead of the landmark event calling for a delay following the car crash in Paris on August 31 which claimed the Princess’s life.

Wary of accusations that his intervention could draw her death into political controversy, Hague asked Blair to not make the correspondence public.

The National:

Tony Blair's letter to William Hague dated September 2, 1997, rejecting the Tory leader's request.

Blair replied the next day refusing Hague’s request and agreed their letters, sent on September 1 and September 2, 1997, should be private.

The Labour PM said postal votes had been sent out, and a postponement “of a week or so” would be “impossible” requiring the recall of Parliament and a new bill.

He added this would mean the referendum would have to be put off until later that year or until the following one.

The National:

Tony Blair said he would not make his letter to William Hague public.

“I also agree it would be quite wrong to allow Princess Diana’s tragic death to be the cause of political controversy,” Blair wrote to Hague.

“I have considered your proposal that we delay the referendum on devolution in Scotland but what you propose raises serious practical difficulties.”

Blair’s reply ended: “Like you I do not intend to make this letter public.”

Details of the exchange are contained in restricted Scotland Office files in the National Archives of Scotland, which were released to the Sunday National after long running efforts to obtain them under a freedom of information application, which was first made by the paper in November 2018.

Repeated requests for the 24-year-old documents were rejected by the Scottish Secretary, despite a ruling from the UK’s Information Commissioner for some to be released.

Blair’s letter to Hague was among the papers finally handed to the Sunday National last month. Hague’s original letter to Blair was not among the files.

The revelation comes amid the continuing constitutional debate in Scotland with 21 successive polls recording majority support for independence.

It also follows a repeated refusal by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government to agree to a second referendum, with the Prime Minister suggesting a new vote should not take place until 2055.

Johnson’s Government has been accused of a sustained attack on devolution amid moves by it to take control of some devolved areas, such as food standards and animal welfare, following the repatriation of powers from Brussels post Brexit.

Last year, Johnson provoked anger when he reportedly told a group of Tory backbenchers devolution had been “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.

READ MORE: Scotland Office fought for years to hide secret papers on devolution referendum

The SNP’s Cabinet Office spokesman Tommy Sheppard last night said Hague’s attempt to put off the vote highlighted his party’s opposition to devolution and to the rights of Scots to have a say over how they are governed.

“The Tories never wanted devolution in the first place and they would seize on any opportunity to try and delay it or frustrate it,” said Sheppard, who was Scottish Labour assistant general secretary from 1994 to 1997.

“The Tories were doing everything they possibly could to delay or frustrate the whole notion of devolution. There were also elements in the Labour party trying to assist them to undermine Donald Dewar and others who wanted to bring it about. It’s consistent with my knowledge of what was happening at the time.”

Asked if Hague’s letter resonates with what is currently happening in terms of Johnson frustrating a second independence referendum, he said: “The Tories can claim that at least they have been consistent in denying the views of Scots. They were in 1997 and they are today.”

Former first minister Henry McLeish, who was Scotland Office minister in Blair’s government and steered the referendum bill through the Commons, said Hague appeared to be using stalling tactics in his request to Blair.

“Clearly this letter that was sent by William Hague to prime minister Blair, and to which he responded, does suggest at that point in 1997 that the Conservatives may have been involved in delaying tactics,” he said.

“Nobody should pretend for a minute that the Conservative Party is interested in devolution. They suffer it, it was introduced by a Labour government on the back of a very significant vote in Scotland and they have never accepted that.”

Campaigning was paused following Princess Diana’s death. The 36-year-old died along with her friend Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul.

Responding to Hague, Blair wrote a short delay would be “impossible”. He said: “The expert advice I have received is that it would [be] impossible to postpone the referendum by only a week or so. Postal proxy votes went out yesterday. Setting up new absent voting arrangements would incur considerable costs and would take three to four weeks.

“The date of the referendum would then clash with party conferences and in practical terms could not take place until much later this year or even next year.

“This would be a much greater disruption of the referendum campaign than the few days we have lost because of last weekend’s tragedy.”

The referendum did go ahead with Scots backing two proposals – for a Scottish Parliament and that it would have tax raising powers (by 74% and 63.5%). The Scottish Parliament was reconvened two years later. Reports from the time show no bids by Hague to stop the referendum going ahead on September 11, though Labour MP Tam Dalyell had called for a delay.

The Conservative Party and Lord Hague were approached for comment.