At what point do you make a decision as big as saying, 'Yes' to independence? When did I first think it was such a good idea? When did one old idea die and a new one come to the foreground of my imagination?
In his beautiful memoir of his late father Blake Morrison asks the question, 'and when did you last see your father?' Was it lying on his deathbed fighting cancer, was it weeks before in full conversation or was it long before that when he really believed his father to have been fully alive? Similarly I ask myself when was it I stopped believing I was British? Because believe me it's been a while since I felt that way.
It probably first happened in Dublin in 1981 after driving there from Co Antrim in the North of Ireland. It was the time of H Block and the hunger strikes and by this time at least one of the hunger strikers had died. Each town we passed through seemed more tense than the one before. In the north the British Army and in the south the black flags and strategic republican caravans in town-squares gathering support for the remaining strikers. I was young, naive but wholly engrossed in the drama. It wasn't until my first morning in the Republic, however, that I understood what it felt like to be in an English speaking city that wasn't beholden to London for its opinions and outlook. Reading the newspaper that day in Dublin I realised the wonder and freedom of a country - albeit still working through the growing pains of independence - listening and talking to the rest of the world directly. Believe me when I tell you that nothing about that sensation felt small. But in all truth it wasn't the possibility of a fairer Scotland or a land of greater opportunity or even a place which could throw off the horror of those early Thatcher years that grabbed my consciousness. It was the simple idea that I could be from Scotland. One name and no clumsy explanation about us being part of the UK. That day I understood that in my lifetime our country could be different.
The other night Jim Sillars came on television. People of my generation probably owe some of their longing for independence to Jim, I know it's a huge marker for me. At a bleak moment in Scotland's story when it seemed that the worst of all governments had been sent to thwart us Jim Sillars won a by-election for the SNP in the heartland of Labour, Govan. I remember sitting up with friends in my flat in Glasgow celebrating, all of us awakening to the fact that it was the first piece of political good news we'd shared in for a long time. This was November 1988 just as Scotland was preparing for the poll tax and the mass criminalisation of ordinary people. Why were we so excited? Were we SNP supporters? No. Did any of us really want or expect Scotland to become independent? Well... possibly because suddenly we were talking about it. We recognised in that Sillars moment that someone was standing up for our values and beliefs. In the months that followed it became clear that the politicians willing to go to the limit to beat the poll tax would not be from the Labour party but increasingly from a coalition of socialists and nationalists who believed it was time to make our own decisions.
It was in these dark days that we accepted we were going to have to change Scotland ourselves. The telling of the story still rankles with many of us. Contrast on one hand our quiet and peaceful refusal to pay our poll tax, bringing huge pressure on the Tory government one year ahead of the imposition of the tax down south. On the other hand history seems to show the fall of Thatcher on the back of violent riots in Trafalgar Square. Up here we know what really did the damage but we also know who writes the history books.