Is there really an overwhelming demand for independence among the people of Catalonia?

It’s all turning pretty ugly in Catalonia, with the Government of Spain now taking a hard line against the former leaders of the region who tried first to hold a referendum - illegal under Spanish law - and then to declare independence.

Eight former ministers are currently in Spanish jails awaiting trial, while the former President Carles Puigdemont is facing extradition from his self-imposed exile in Belgium.

But how did it get to this? Is there really an overwhelming demand for independence among the people of Catalonia?

Sadly, there is no reliable way to find out.

A referendum would have provided an answer, much as it did on the question of Scottish independence back in 2014.

But the Spanish constitution does not allow for such a thing, and the courts have been uncompromising in blocking one.

The vote the Catalans tried to hold was badly disrupted by heavy-handed police tactics, the turnout was low, and the ‘result’ anything but definitive.

The polls suggest that the separatists would have struggled to win anyway.

A leading pollster we spoke to suggested that 60% or more of the Catalan people see themselves and both Catalan and Spanish, and - incidentally - European too.

Human tower building is a Catalan sport and an expression of national identity. Credit: On Assignment

While they may wish to see more powers devolved to Barcelona, and less of the regions wealth distributed around the rest of Spain, a total rupture is not what they’re looking for.

Not only that, but there is a further split between native Catalans and those who have moved from elsewhere in Spain to live and work in the most economically dynamic part of the country.

Catalan identity, culture and language were ruthlessly suppressed under Franco.

But, as we found as we walked in the footsteps of Orwell and Hemingway on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War, even some of Franco’s fiercest enemies do not see that as an excuse to break up Spain.

The ‘Catalan question’ really does not lend itself to simple answers.

  • On Assignment returns for a brand new series on Tuesday November 7 at 10.40pm on ITV