SENIOR SNP figures have backed Nicola Sturgeon's suggestion that independence could be parked in the short term if Scotland can be protected from a hard Brexit.

Former health secretary Alex Neil and former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill both welcomed Sturgeon's first significant intervention of 2017 about the prospects of a second independence referendum being held.

Sturgeon has said that while she believed Scotland's "direction of travel" was towards independence this could be "put aside" in the short term as she seeks "consensus and compromise" over the EU.

Neil said Sturgeon's approach would help the independence movement "prepare the ground" for a second referendum after the UK's Brexit deal has been agreed. He said the SNP would have a better chance of winning it once the terms of the UK's departure had been resolved over issues such as the single market and trade.

The SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts said Sturgeon's approach would ultimately benefit the Yes movement. And he argued that the SNP should focus on building the case for independence and preparing for a referendum, which he believed was likely to come after the UK's 2020 General Election.

MacAskill echoed Neil's backing for Sturgeon's stance saying: "It's perfectly sensible and the right thing to do. I think it will be widely accepted," by SNP and independence supporters.

The First Minister wants the UK to retain membership of the European single market, the so-called soft Brexit option. Sturgeon has set out plans to protect Scotland’s place in the bloc that allows for free movement of goods and services, even if the rest of the UK leaves it.

Her remarks came ahead of the deadline this Wednesday for the public consultation on the Scottish Government’s draft referendum bill.

Neil, who sent shockwaves through the SNP when he revealed he voted for Brexit, said Sturgeon had adopted the right approach. He said: "The time to take a decision is once we know what the Brexit deal is going to be.

My interpretation of what Nicola Sturgeon's remarks is that's what she is saying.

"She's saying let's find out what the deal is and then take a decision once we know what the deal is. That's the right way to go about it. In that sense the independence bus is back on the road."

He added: "If we were to go for an independence referendum now it would be too early to answer the basic questions about leaving the EU on issues like trade for example. The case for independence is a much bigger issue than just Brexit and we should use this time to prepare the ground. We should use the next two years to build the case for independence."

He suggested that a "good time might be after the UK General Election in 2020. Scotland cannot tolerate another five years of Tory rule and that would be a huge tipping point."

His remarks came as a pro-independence think tank launched a replacement White Paper, setting out a blueprint the case for an independent Scotland in the event of a fresh referendum being called.

Common Weal said the document aims to resolve issues such as the cost of the start-up of an independent Scottish state after a Yes vote, its currency, EU membership and defence.

The group said: "The aim is to produce a 'consolidated business plan for the establishment of a new nation state' which would get Scotland to 'day one' of independence with the ability to collect taxes, defend its borders, negotiate with international partners, secure its energy supply and so on."

The move comes ahead of the holding of a flagship conference next weekend by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) which has been called with the aim of addressing key weaknesses in the Yes case from 2014.

Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars said the party's membership should be properly consulted on preparing for 'indyref2'.

Sillars said: "The priority for the SNP has to be to hold the long delayed post-mortem on why we lost in 2014 and come up with the goods. The SNP has 120,000 members and the party's national executive should set up policy groups so that people can have a real say."

However, Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie, said the SNP Government should keep its promise to pass an independence bill to protect Scotland from a hard Brexit. He said: "It mustn't be taken off the table in case the UK government refuses any sort of reasonable compromise.

"I'd have a problem if the SNP decided to shelve the bill without a very clear indication from the UK Government that it's going to respect the way Scotland voted."