Ian Dommett was at the heart of the independence campaign. Today, he breaks his silence to our Writer at Large Neil Mackay, revealing how the SNP destroyed the movement

RECENTLY I pondered in my regular Herald column whether the Yes movement should be a civic rather than political campaign, given the danger of hitching the fortunes of independence to the fortunes of the SNP.

The current scandals engulfing the party seemed to illustrate why the Yes movement should get out from under the SNP’s shadow. Independence, evidently, doesn’t – or shouldn’t – belong to Scottish nationalists alone.

One of the former directors of Yes Scotland, Ian Dommett, got in touch after reading the column. He worked with the SNP for eight years, crafting its election campaigns and the 2014 independence referendum strategy. “You’re spot on,” he said. “It was so interesting to see how my friends at the top of the SNP were actually more interested in party political power than independence.”

I asked Dommett if he’d talk openly. He pondered a while, reluctant to put himself in the spotlight, but eventually decided to speak in the interests of correcting the history books. His comments today are biting, his criticism fierce. In essence, Dommett accuses the SNP of sabotaging Yes Scotland during the independence campaign. If independence is ever to be won, it needs taken out of the SNP’s hands and turned into a civic, not political, campaign.

“If the SNP behave the same way next time – if that ever happens – then Yes will lose again. It must be a campaign owned by the people, vested in the future of Scotland for ordinary people. It cannot be owned by political parties. But that’s the catch-22 for independence: the SNP would never allow that to happen. It’s impossible for them to realise that the path to independence isn’t through the SNP. If the path to independence was through them, we’d have already won.”


Thanks to dominating the Yes campaign, the SNP “benefited hugely through gaining thousands of enthusiastic, committed activists – that membership explosion after 2014”.

The 2014 referendum’s fatal flaw was this: because the Yes campaign was dominated by the SNP, many voters felt “voting for independence was voting for the SNP. That should never have been the case. We needed to engage with far more people than would happen in a traditional political campaign”.

This “hijacking” of the Yes movement worked well for the SNP, until it became clear that independence wasn’t going to happen. “That’s why tens of thousands left the party.”

Support for independence has failed to get consistently above 50% as the SNP simply hasn’t governed well enough. “It’s been firing on two cylinders – like a power station that’s not powered up.” That disillusioned progressive voters.


“MORE should have been done with the powers we’ve got. The Scottish Government should have focused on good government and been distinct from the Yes campaign. And the Yes campaign should have been distinct from any party. But the SNP had no intention of letting go. The tension remains in Scottish society between the SNP’s desire for power, and the independence movement’s desire for an independent Scotland.”

So, is he saying the SNP destroyed Yes Scotland? “Yes. The SNP was the biggest contributor to the failure of Yes Scotland.”

And did that spell failure at the referendum? “Yes. We were being constantly undermined by the SNP. It was just s***. They trashed us.”


DOMMETT says of his time with the SNP: “I became very friendly with Peter Murrell [Nicola Sturgeon’s husband and the former SNP chief executive recently arrested in connection with police inquiries into party finances]. I had an excellent working relationship with Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other ministers.”

However, matters deteriorated. Dommett spent most of his time in Yes Scotland “putting out fires started by the SNP. My view was if 27% of Scotland supported independence in 2012, it was likely those people were SNP sympathisers. So the job of Yes Scotland was to close the gap to 50% by addressing the issues, concerns and hopes of non-SNP supporters. This didn’t go down well with Nicola, Peter and the rest. For instance, we were forbidden from sharing any research findings with the Greens or Scottish Socialists, even though they sat on Yes Scotland’s board”.

Dommett continues: “As it became clear that it was a social campaign, not political campaign which would win the referendum, we came into continuous conflict with the SNP, whose boot was firmly on the money supply, discouraging potential high-value supporters from donating to the campaign. Instead, they got the money passed to the SNP.”

Murrell, Dommett says, “likes his chums around him. I was a chum. But I also started disagreeing with him. He doesn’t like that”.


First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell outside Broomhouse Community Hall polling station in Glasgow after casting their votes for the local council elections..

First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell outside Broomhouse Community Hall polling station in Glasgow 



SNP constituency parties were “antagonistic towards any Yes campaigner not in the party”. There was a “land grab”, he said, where some SNP MSPs set up pro-independence groups which effectively did and achieved nothing. “Off they went and started getting money for themselves,” he added. This money was never seen by Yes Scotland to help the campaign. “They were pushing their way to the front of the buffet to get there first and take the best bits. It was impossible to manage. Groups that were SNP dominated usually didn’t deliver in the way groups separate from the SNP did.”

One of the lowest points of the independence campaign for Dommett was the “leaders’ debate” between Salmond and Alistair Darling. Although Blair Jenkins, Yes Scotland CEO, was nominally head of the Yes campaign, it was Salmond who took on Darling, chairman of Better Together. “It just became a political scrap between two old men, totally out of kilter with the mood we were seeing on the doorstep.”

As 2014 approached, “Yes Scotland became a front, with no power or direction”. There were five directors in total at Yes Scotland – Dommett was director of marketing.

Dommett and the senior team wanted to create a movement that “people could join who had no political affiliation or affiliation to other political parties. We had to find a structure and environment in which people of different political views and none felt comfortable. But that always brought conflict with the SNP who felt they should run it”.

From the grass roots up, the SNP was unable to allow Yes Scotland any control. Dommett stresses he was a member of the SNP. “I absolutely went in as an SNP supporter.” But matters quickly changed when he became a Yes Scotland director. “At any one point, 80% of the problems we dealt with were caused by SNP people.”

In Scotland’s divided political environment, the SNP put off as many people as they attracted. “It was only ever going to be a community, civic campaign which would win. Everybody in Scotland needed to be able to feel this was their campaign, and they could determine the future of their country.”


DOMMETT says that “everything Yes Scotland did was filtered through the SNP executive – through Peter, through Nicola”. Dommett had a “very strong, close working relationship with Peter”. However, when Dommett suggested

that Yes Scotland share polling data with the Greens – who were part of Yes Scotland – “it caused absolute ructions. That shook me”. Dommett and his team collated reams of polling data. “We were trying to understand who we had to convince to get us over 50%. But the SNP had no interest in sharing that with fellow Yes campaigners who weren’t in the SNP. They didn’t want to give away information which could be used in a party political way.”

There was an outward impression that “we were all peddling together but at every point it was impossible to remove the SNP from directing everything, particularly when it came to funding”.

Murrell “had a separate Yes merchandising activity. So when Yes Scotland turned up at events, trying to sell our badges, buttons, T-shirts and stuff, he had his own merchandising there … sometimes in a huge trailer. We’d turn up to events on Friday nights all ready for Saturday, set up our stalls, then Peter would drive in with some 40-feet-long merchandising truck – all stuff branded with our identity and our campaign, and you’re thinking, ‘well, hang on a minute here, Peter’.”.

Did this money go into SNP coffers? “Yes,” says Dommett. Did any of this money go towards Yes Scotland? “No,” says Dommett.


THE SNP constantly overrode and dominated Yes Scotland. “Leaflets started being produced by the SNP under Yes Scotland’s banner. We were trying our best to run a campaign and the SNP was fundamentally undermining it by doing their own parallel thing.

“They were talking to donors, saying ‘don’t give money to Yes Scotland, it’s a waste, give it to us, we’ll look after it’. Obviously, most people – especially high-value donors – want to have dinner with the First Minister rather than Yes Scotland campaigners. High-value donors want to be close to power and influence in return for money.”

Murrell “was very good at holding his hand out to the side. I had a feeling Peter didn’t want Yes Scotland to have the budget that would allow it to lead the campaign. If you’re presenting Yes Scotland as a team of rather useless, incompetent time-wasters, while saying ‘give your money to the SNP and you can have dinner with Alex or Nicola’, then you can see what people would do. We couldn’t get to talk to donors to change their opinion”.

Dommett says sometimes Yes Scotland events were taken over by attention-grabbing SNP politicians who would come to make speeches. “You’d think to yourself, ‘you just aren’t getting that this isn’t all about you’. They were making speeches to rooms full of ordinary people who weren’t there to hear the SNP. They wanted to take part in a grass-roots social movement.

“There was a constant clash. The SNP were scared of a different type of campaign that wasn’t political in nature as they feared losing their position of power. They wanted to ensure they were the engine room.”


EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: (EDITORS NOTE: This image is a re-crop of image #455028102) First Minister Alex Salmond, meets with Scots and other European citizens to celebrate European citizenship and Scotlands continued EU membership with a

First Minister Alex Salmond, meets with Scots and other European citizens to celebrate European citizenship 



SO, was it party before cause? “Yes, though perhaps it’s better to say that SNP thinking was ‘there’s no cause without the party’.”

Dommett pauses and adds: “If I come across as slightly bitter, apologies, I don’t mean to be.”

Is he saying the SNP made Yes Scotland look foolish? “Yes. Remember the independence white paper – that big book? Nobody in Yes Scotland saw that until it was printed.” When Salmond faced Darling in the ‘leaders’ debate’, he was “coached by special advisers, none of whom knew what Yes Scotland was doing day to day, despite the fact that we were having huge successes, getting people to events across the country, talking to thousands daily.”

The SNP sent staff into Yes Scotland who reported back to the party. “They were constantly briefing against us. We weren’t driving the bus anymore –someone else was doing that without any discussion. You felt like a kid with a toy steering wheel.”

Did he tell SNP leaders he felt Yes Scotland was being sabotaged? “No.” Initially, he trusted the party. By the time his view changed, it was too late. “Perhaps I was naive.”

If the Yes campaign “had been social not political”, it might have taken the edge of press hostility. But with the Scottish press mostly opposed to the SNP, Dommett says, that fostered hostility to the Yes campaign.

As the SNP ensured the campaign remained political rather than civic, the media in turn politicised the campaign. The SNP was understandably pitted against Labour, Conservatives and LibDems during TV broadcasts, forcing the debate down strictly party political lines which divided the population. A social campaign, Dommett says, would have meant far less division. As the SNP didn’t command majority support across Scotland – the backing of 50% of the population – that meant “presenting the debate as political ensured we would lose”.

Dommett adds: “Importantly, the public didn’t want the campaign to be political. They wanted it to be social, aspirational and cultural. If it had been a civic campaign there would have been balance in terms of voice and presentation in the media: one civic Yes speaker, one civic No speaker. Instead we got one SNP versus Labour, LibDem and Tory.”


IT was impossible to even pretend the Yes campaign was civic rather than political as the SNP leadership continually overshadowed Yes Scotland CEO Blair Jenkins. “If the person doing all the interviews had been the head of Yes Scotland, and not an SNP leader, it could have been presented differently.”

However, Dommett says Jenkins “just wasn’t the right person for the job. He had no campaigning experience”. Others in Yes Scotland have referred to Jenkins as a “stooge” or “patsy” for the SNP.

Keeping the campaign political “was a real misstep”. The SNP turned debates with rival parties into boxing matches, not the aspirational discussion about Scotland’s future that voters were saying they wanted when speaking to Dommett’s team on the doorstep.

So, who should have led the Yes campaign, if not the SNP? Dommett pauses and says he will use Elaine C Smith, the pro-independence actor, as hypothetical. “It’s a random name, just for the sake of the discussion, but someone like Elaine could have been the voice of independence: non-political, a woman, not male, pale and stale.

“With Alex, people disliked him as much as they liked him, he was very divisive – particularly when it came to independence when he wasn’t talking to the faithful but to people who had already rejected him at the ballot box. I thought Alex out front was ridiculous – and I’d a lot of time for him. Politicians can’t help jumping into the spotlight thinking ‘I can win this’.

“Alex thought he could beat anybody. But that wasn’t the right tone for this campaign. The public didn’t want it adversarial. They wanted it about hope, ambition, their children’s prospects. Someone who was non-political at the helm could have made it like that, made it about what ordinary people wanted, not what politicians wanted.”


DOMMETT adds: “The Faustian question for the SNP was this: what would you be willing to give up for independence? Would you want independence if it meant there was no SNP? I don’t think many of them would have wanted that.”

As the referendum approached, Dommett says he saw many jump on the independence bandwagon. “You’d see good people come forward saying ‘how can I help you’, and then others thinking ‘what can I get out of this?’ There was big money to be made.”

So, how many ‘grifters’ were there? “Loads, particularly the closer we came to the end.” Many pro-independence organisations were established. “Some arrived about two hours before the vote,” Dommett joked. He said some future SNP elected politicians “were nowhere to be seen until about June 2014”. Latecomers were often from the “Scottish establishment” – hedging their bets that Yes might win as there would be something to gain from backing the campaign. “I found that amusing,” Dommett adds sarcastically.

Dommett admits much of the Yes campaign was “naive” as “we were promoting something we hadn’t worked out”. Yes campaigners “couldn’t agree” what an “independent Scotland would look like as it was still to be created. That was the fundamental intellectual and political problem. We were selling a product we hadn’t defined”.


DOMMETT’S marketing company, the Cor Agency, was originally hired by the SNP in 2004 to “professionalise the party”. He worked on the 2005 Westminster campaign, and the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood campaigns. But as the referendum approached, the SNP “decapitated” Yes Scotland and “started getting rid of directors”. Dommett was one of the last senior figures to be “dumped”.

Most of the remaining Yes Scotland staff were subsumed into the SNP or were SNP loyalists. What remained of Yes Scotland “was a front”. An office continued in Glasgow, but was effectively a “Potemkin village”. Dommett stayed loyal to the SNP, however, until after the referendum, when he began working with the Greens on campaigns and gave up SNP membership. He never joined the Greens.

“I remain 100% behind Scottish independence,” he adds. He was heartbroken by defeat. Dommett insists his comments aren’t motivated by “bitterness”. Rather, he wants to set the historical record straight about what happened within Yes Scotland.

“I’m speaking out as we haven’t learned 2014’s lessons. The SNP must let go of the Yes campaign, but they’ll never do that. They want to be the ones at the top of the hill, raising the flag.

“But that will never happen with them in charge.”