The flight from Edinburgh to Barcelona on Saturday morning resembled an excursion for battle-hardened veterans of the Scottish independence referendum three years earlier. At a coffee bar near the departure gates, a small gaggle of BBC reporters, cameramen, producers and freelancers like myself looked forward and back, wondering what might be in store. Of course, it was simplistic to read across from one referendum to another – we all realised that – but nevertheless there were some parallels. Even the branding of the 'Si' campaign, apparent as soon as two of us reached the city centre, brought to mind the ubiquitous and colourful 'Yes' banners of 2014. Everywhere there was talk of 'self-determination', although it had a rather different meaning given the determination of Madrid to prevent Catalonia's 'unofficial' ballot from taking place at all.
Where the analogy broke down, interestingly, concerned the other side, Catalonia's so-called 'silent majority,' the 50%+ of voters who (at least before last weekend) did not want the autonomous community to sever all remaining ties with Spain. After catching up with an engaging pro-independence supporter at a cafe in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, we literally got caught up in a sprawling pro-Spain rally making its way to a Catalan government building in a little square. My companion called them 'unionists', though without the contempt that often accompanies the term back home.
George Orwell would no doubt have been fascinated by the manner in which political language now migrates from one polity to another, not only 'unionism', but one chant from the crowd that evoked last year's US presidential election: 'Puigdemont, go to prison.' At this point it occurred to me that my pro-independence contact might not be entirely comfortable being surrounded by hundreds of Spanish-flag-wearing protestors – though beyond their chants they were smiling and benign – and indeed when I suggested we escape via a side street he looked relieved. He remarked that 'Si' rallies were usually upbeat, unlike – in his view – what we'd just witnessed. 'They had,' he observed, 'hatred on their faces.'
Events in parts of Barcelona the following day are now imprinted on the minds of anyone scanning social media or television news bulletins that afternoon, but I saw no violence. Instead, I spent some time at a school in Badalona, north of Barcelona, which was doubling up (as is the norm in Scotland) as a polling station. Although it was a rather grey and wet day, I'd never seen so many people queuing to vote which, while anecdotal, suggested the turnout would be above that achieved during the last independence ballot in 2014.
My contact managed to get me inside, and although strikingly relaxed (no one had any objection to me photographing a ballot paper, unthinkable at home) it seemed to me efficiently run. Later, online, sceptical friends repeated reports to the effect that Catalans had been encouraged to print their own voting slips at home, and that given the prospect of police disruption they'd be allowed to vote at any polling station that would accommodate them. As far as I could see the first wasn't true (organisers told me anyone bringing their own ballot paper would be asked to fill out a proper one) and while the second was, I saw attendants carefully cross-checking each voter on an electronic database (working in spite of Madrid's attempts to take it offline) to ensure they were not only registered but hadn't already voted. In the circumstances, this struck me as pretty diligent.
After filing my report (and regular column) for the Herald, I spent an hour or so in Plaça de Catalunya, one of Barcelona's sprawling main squares, where hundreds of independence supporters had gathered, many wearing the distinctive Catalan flag, to watch several large screens broadcasting commentary and results – any footage of the Spanish police got booed, while local results suggesting an overwhelming Yes vote were inevitably cheered. At around half past midnight the 'result' was declared, 90% support on a 40%+ turnout which, given the events of that day, seemed respectable. Nevertheless, after a brief wave of enthusiasm in response, the crowd quickly settled down, perhaps conscious it meant little in the face of Spanish opposition.
On Monday I boarded a south-bound train at noon, the moment at which a city-wide 'shut down' was supposed to begin, the only way independence supporters could express their discontent given the Catalan president's reluctance to declare UDI, which had been rumoured – indeed hinted at – the previous evening. It was a relief to arrive three hours later in Valencia, another of Spain's autonomous communities, albeit one evidently more at ease with its subsidiary relationship to Madrid.
Several buildings in the beguilingly attractive city (the sunshine helped) sported Spanish flags alongside the Valencian banner which, confusingly, looked rather like its Catalan equivalent. I wasn't sure if this was a normal display of Spanish patriotism but a local put me right: the flags had only gone up in the past few weeks, prompted by events in the neighbouring region. On learning that I'd been reporting in Barcelona, the owner of my guesthouse diplomatically ventured that events in Catalonia had been 'interesting'. They certainly had.