THE Deputy First Minister has said it would be “premature” to say if he supports the idea of a General Election being used as a “de facto” independence referendum ahead of the SNP’s special democracy conference.

The party is to hold a meeting of delegates on March 19 to debate the way forward after the Supreme Court ruled Holyrood could not legislate for indyref2 without Westminster consent.

The party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) has proposed two options. The first would see the next General Election treated as a “de facto” independence referendum, while the second would see that same election instead used to try and win a mandate for a repeat of the 2014 vote.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon lays out details of SNP special conference – read it in full

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged SNP members and branches to submit their own proposals or amendments to the NEC’s ahead of the special democracy conference in order to facilitate open and rigorous debate.

Asked what his preferred route would be, Swinney said he wanted to see a referendum held with the consent of Westminster, but declined to say what he supported beyond that.

The Deputy First Minister told The National: “My preference is that we have a Section 30 order that enables a legally competent referendum to take its course, for which there’s a parliamentary majority. That's my preference.

“In relation to the party debate, I think it's important, I very much agree with the First Minister, I think it's important the party has its say in these questions. I don't know all the questions that will be in front of the party conference, so I think it's a bit premature to set out what my thinking is.

“We'll wait and see the full range of proposals that are before the conference, and I'll consider that at that time.

“But I think it's important that we leave as much space at this critical moment for the party members to decide what way they want to go.”

Asked if he was fully behind the First Minister in supporting the idea of using a Westminster election as a de facto referendum, Swinney said: “The First Minister said she wants the party to take a decision and that's her position and that's my position.

“I think it's important the party's got the space to think about this to consider it and we'll all come to our conclusion,” he added.

The National:

Alison Thewliss (above), the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson at Westminster, told The National she would back a de facto referendum if that was the party’s decision at conference.

Asked for her position on the issue, Thewliss said: “I can see all sides of this debate. There's advantages and disadvantages regardless of how you want to do this.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry says she won't be leaving SNP following Alyn Smith remark

“But I'm most keen that we get a proper referendum and that the UK Government gives us the referendum that we have a mandate for, because that will be a gold standard.”

Asked if she would “100% back a de facto referendum” if the special democracy conference decided that was the best way forward, Thewliss said: “Yes. I mean, the position of the Westminster election, as the next election, makes sense to me, because that's the next thing that's coming – rather than having to wait for a Scottish Parliament election.”

“It seems perfectly logical,” she added.