CATALANS have already held Europe's biggest ever protest marches.

Tomorrow they are to stage what amounts to the continent's biggest ever protest vote.

That is because Sunday's independence referendum - like so much of the imaginative home rule campaign in the north-eastern Iberian nation - is to be purely symbolic.

Catalonia's leaders had hoped for something a little more concrete, a little more Scottish, in fact: a binding plebiscite that would finally settle whether the country remains part of the Spanish state or not. Instead, after months of legal, constitutional and political wrangling, they are organising what their opponents regard as a glorified opinion poll.

Spain's Constitutional Court, after all, has imposed an injunction on a more formal vote.

This is bad news and good news for Catalonia's independentistas. It is bad news because, for the time being, their legal route out of Spain is blocked. But it is good news because they can now forge a coalition that unites Catalans around the nation's "right to decide" its own future.

Some polls put support for independence at well over 50 per cent but support for a real referendum far higher, perhaps as high as four of out five voters.

"It is no longer a matter of yes to independence or no to independence," said Artur Mas, Catalonia's centre-right president ahead of tomorrow's event. "But a matter of defending fundamental rights that are protected by basic laws."

The drive by Madrid's ruling politicians and legal establishment to stop the vote, he said, hurt those fundamental rights. Mr Mas added: "Don't be afraid. Take part in the vote, whatever you think and whatever ideology you have."

Then, breaking into English, he said: "Keep calm." These words come from straight from the old British Second World War posters now popular across the continent. His Catalan listeners didn't need to be told the rest of the slogan: "Keep calm and carry on."

Thus the vote becomes a numbers game. How many voters in the "nation" - or "region", according to Madrid - will turn out? Shortly before Scotland's independence referendum, perhaps 1.8m Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona to create a giant human "V" - the initial of vote, victory and voluntat, the Catalan for "will".

That huge event - thought to be one of the biggest protests of its kind in modern European history - was organised the by Catalan National Assembly. The same body has taken on much of the organisation of tomorrow's poll. Carme Forcadell, its president, said the voting process was unstoppable: even if Madrid wanted to, most police are answered to Mr Mas's government, the Generalitat.

"I don't think they will prevent us from voting, either in the streets or in schools. They can't prevent us from getting altogether at the same time in schools to vote. What would they do?"

In fact, many observers believe the ballot has more in common with the September 11 protests marking Catalonia's La Diada national day than with Scotland's referendum.

Professor Michael Keating, director of the Edinburgh-based Centre on Constitutional Change, said: "This is a demonstration, not a vote. It's not scientific. Yes voters will turn out and No voters will not."

So what will tomorrow bring? Well, a bit of time that Mr Mas desperately needs, reckons Mr Keating. For years his CiU coalition has offered vague home rule, "our own state" for Catalonia, the word "independence" never quite being as defined as it is in Scotland. "They have stopped playing with words," said Mr Keating. "They now really mean independence and support is increasingly strong."

But not all of CiU is in the independence camp. Mr Mas's part of the alliance, Convergencia increasingly is clearcut in its aspirations for sovereignty. But the smaller partner, Unio, is not.

So Mr Mas's government is now being outflanked by more openly enthusiastic independendistas, Esquerra Republicana, the left-wing movement formally allied with the SNP. They want early elections: a real test for support for independence which would, most likely, result in a victory for them.

The ructions in Catalonia come as the entire Spanish party political system is challenged as never before. New parties are undermining all the certainties put in place after Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after the fall of General Franco. Left-wing anti-establishment group Podemos is topping opinion polls.

Why? Because brutal austerity has combined with revelations about corruption that reach the very top of both Spanish society and the ruling Partido Popular of Mariano Rajoy, Spain's archunionist prime minister. This disenchantment with Madrid politics is one of the key drivers of Catalan yearnings for independence.

But Catalonia is not immune from the same malaise: the history of Mr Mas's Convergencia is now under the spotlight too. So, whatever happens tomorrow and in the coming months, Madrid may be too unstable to make meaningful concessions and Barcelona too unstable to accept them.