Jake Wallis Simons in Barcelona — Oct 28, 2017
I was roaring through central Barcelona on the back of a motorcycle, in the midst of a pack of unionist riders adorned with Spanish flags, all sounding their horns with reckless abandon when it hit me: this was the voice of the silent majority. Catalonia does not want independence from Spain.
But let me begin at the beginning. Yesterday afternoon, the word was put out on Twitter that a group of unionists were intending to parade through Barcelona on two wheels before riding out to the port, where a battalion of national police were barracked in a ship.
There they planned to serenade officers and shower them with flowers and Spanish flags. These were the same police, you understand, who cracked down so brutally on the Catalan referendum at the beginning of the month; when seen through nationalist eyes, they were simply doing their jobs and had been unfairly vilified by the world’s media.
I decided to join them. Before long, I found myself in the thick of the action as the unionists gunned their engines through the civilised avenues of the city centre, kicking up a stink and causing gaggles of chi-chi shoppers to gawp in disbelief.
It felt like a beautifully rebellious act. In recent days, the narrative has been firmly on the side of the separatists. We have seen the Catalan parliament voting in favour of a declaration of independence; we have seen tens of thousands of separatists partying on the streets of Barcelona, puffing marijuana and spraying Cava in jubilation; we have seen videos of some of them being thumped by far-Right nationalists.
But what we have not seen is the voice of the silent majority of Catalans, who are quite happy to remain part of Spain and view the separatists as a group of volatile and troublemaking radicals.
Although the referendum of 1st October was touted as being overwhelmingly in favour of independence, this was the narrative of the separatists. And it was far from the truth.
Because the vote was called illegally – that is, in defiance of the Spanish constitution – the unionist parties advised their supporters not to take part. As a result, only those who desired independence cast a vote. The outcome was a 90 percent landslide in favour of secession, but, crucially, only on a 43 percent turnout.
Add to this the fact that over the years, polls have consistently shown that the cause of independence has attracted no more than 45 percent of support in Catalonia, and the conclusion is unavoidable: most Catalans do not want independence. They never have done.
The Catalan leadership has consistently lobbied Madrid for the right to hold a legitimate referendum. Should this right have been granted, the result would almost certainly have been in favour of Catalonia remaining part of Spain.
But Madrid, beset by Fascist-era authoritarianism and concerned about setting a precedent for the Basque country and other disputed regions, has refused to grant Catalans a free vote. This drove Mr Puigdemont to stage one anyway, and the rest, up to a point, is history.
What of the Catalan unionists? That is to say: what of the quiet majority? These people are decent, unassuming citizens, and they have felt too intimidated to make their voices heard. This has allowed the (now disputed) Catalan leader to craft the narrative in terms that suit his cause, giving the impression to the outside world that every last Catalan man, woman and child is feverish with the desire for independence.
What rot. When I was on the back of that motorcycle, roaring through central Barcelona with unionists draped in Spanish flags on either side, I was astounded to see pedestrians greeting our provocative parade with enthusiasm.
Again and again, ordinary people grinned, punched the air, tooted their horns and waved their own Spanish flags as we sped by. Of course, there were one or two sour faces who made obscene gestures and flapped the Catalan banner. But the level of support – no, the level of relief – on the streets was striking. Finally, someone was speaking for them. For the timid majority.
There have been massive unionist demonstrations in Barcelona, but largely these have been powered by hardliners from Madrid. At one of them, I saw a long line of buses disgorging crowds of ready-made Spanish nationalists complete with accessories. In contrast, the motorcycle parade was organised spontaneously by Catalans. And people knew it.
For decades, Catalan unionists have kept their mouths shut, minded their own business and hoped that these fanatical independence types somehow meet their comeuppance. Many of them are quietly patriotic, but would never dream of doing anything as crass as wrapping themselves in the Spanish colours and taking to the streets, bellowing ‘viva España’.
But on Friday, when independence was declared, they found themselves well and truly gazumped. The next morning, many woke up in a state of disorientation, no longer knowing the country in which they lived, the place in which they belonged, or even who they were.
The smiles of relief that I saw on the faces of countless bystanders as the unionist riders swept by in a blaze of unapologetic red-and-yellow told a powerful and rather poignant tale.
Most Catalans do not want independence. They know it; Madrid knows it; and in his heart of hearts, Mr Puigdemont knows it. The real question now is, will a parade of a few hundred bikers be enough to galvanise them into action? With a massive unionist demonstration planned for today, will the silent majority roar?
Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor at the Daily Mail Online