AN interesting thing happened to world-famous footballer Lionel Messi recently. Yes, he was denied a place in the Champion’s League final by the shock result at Anfield midweek. But just after scoring (perhaps) the goal of the century from a free-kick against Liverpool, a week earlier, FC Barcelona’s most celebrated player received a medal from Catalonia – his adopted home country. And that’s surprising. This little nation, denied the right to define its own future peacefully, somehow has its own honours system.

The Creu de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Cross) was inaugurated in 1981 to recognise individuals who’ve served Catalonia in the protection of its identity. And there’s no doubt the Argentine-born captain of FC Barcelona has done just that.

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But Messi isn’t the only recipient. Two former Catalan parliament speakers and the Slovenian MEP who wants Brussels to mediate in the constitutional crisis have also received the Creu. The Catalan Gold Medal’s been awarded to world-famous cellist and composer Pablo Casals, surrealist master Salvador Dalí, the Firefighters Department of Barcelona and the Institute for Catalan Studies – banned during the Franco dictatorship.

In other words, honours have been given to dogged supporters of the Catalan government’s cause, talented individuals and teams of workers, regardless of their views on independence. Indeed, Messi reportedly renegotiated his contract after 2017 to leave Barcelona without a transfer fee if Catalonia secedes from Spain. So, the award of the Creu de Sant Jordi is no grubby payoff. It’s a way of conveying love and admiration to prominent citizens of Catalonia. It’s a way of saying civic society matters, Catalan culture matters and the worth of citizens shouldn’t be left to a remote central government to judge or recognise.

So why haven’t we got a similar honours system here in Scotland?

According to the Scottish Government: “The granting of Honours is a reserved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. Since 2007, Scottish Ministers have chosen not to play any part in the process.”

Given the aristocratic overtones and level of corruption involved – that’s quite right. But what would happen if Scots invented our own “People’s Honours” as the Catalans did 40 years ago? Would Westminster declare them “invalid”? I merely ask.

Meanwhile, cultural diplomacy is growing apace in Catalonia. The Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat) was set up by the Catalan government in 2012, to promote international awareness of Catalonia. So far, so unremarkable.

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But Diplocat’s been busy. It’s organised an international forum about the integration of refugees; set up a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs; met foreign MPs to promote debate on the “right to decide”; helped oversee elections in Cuba; carried out digital diplomacy on social networks; cultural diplomacy through the annual exchange of roses and books on Sant Jordi’s Day; gives an annual Catalan Business Diplomacy Award to companies identifying themselves as Catalan and has organised academic events to discuss the Catalan independence process in Lisbon, Princeton, Cambridge, Tokyo and Stockholm universities.

Diplocat’s activities sound constructive and inspiring to Scottish ears but the Spanish constitution reserves “external action” exclusively to the government of Spain.

So it came as no surprise when Diplocat was dramatically “liquidated” along with Catalonia’s foreign “delegations” (not embassies) in Germany, France, Switzerland, the UK, Ireland, Austria, Italy, EU and USA after the Spanish government declared direct rule in 2017.

When the Catalan government was restored last year, however, one of the first acts of new President Quim Torra was to reactivate Diplocat with new staff. That’s kinda brave.

The National: Catalan president Quim Torra has taken bold actionsCatalan president Quim Torra has taken bold actions

The Catalan government is just one of 39 Diplocat funders – the rest are private companies, co-operatives, chambers of commerce, regional governments, councils, universities, trade unions, banks and Barcelona FC. But it’s by far the biggest backer. So restoring Diplocat could seem like an act of provocation to the new Spanish government. Still, the Catalans have gone ahead without a second thought. That’s how much they value public diplomacy and international profile.

Could the Scottish Government establish a similar DiploScot? Yes, it could. And actually, why not?

Obviously, though, the biggest battle in Catalonia is political. Here, too, there’s more to inspire than frighten fellow independence campaigners in Scotland, despite the impossible-looking catch 22 that currently traps Catalan politicians.

Earlier this week, Spain’s highest court reversed a ban on Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí standing in European Parliament elections. If one of them wins, they’ll gain the legal immunity accorded to MEPs by EU treaties, and that means Puigdemont could finally return to Barcelona without facing arrest. The snag is that to be sworn in – and get that EU immunity – he must first travel to Madrid, where he could be arrested the minute he arrives. Puigdemont says he will fight to be sworn in remotely if this looks likely to happen.

But either spectacle will put Catalan independence back in the headlines and the tattered international reputation of Spanish justice back in the dock.

There could, however, be an even more sensational outcome from the European vote -- the election of Oriol Junqueras as an MEP, weeks after his election as a Catalan MP from his prison cell in Madrid. The 49-year-old historian was one of eight politicians arrested after Catalonia’s “illegal” referendum and independence declaration in 2017 and hauled off to jail. A few months later, some ministers were freed after pledging support for the imposition of direct rule. But nine people are still behind bars, including Junqueras and two jailed independence activists – Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez i Picanyol. They’ve been on trial since February, and their testimony has riveted Catalan society.

Junqueras, stuck in a Madrid prison for most of the time since his arrest, proclaimed: “Nothing we did is a crime, neither voting in a referendum, nor working towards the independence of Catalonia.” Unbelievably the Republican Left leader could face a 25-year jail sentence if found guilty of the rebellion charge, but his courageous defiance has already reaped electoral rewards.

In the Spanish elections two weeks ago, Junqueras’s party nearly doubled its seats in parliament, while Puigdemont’s centre-right alliance lost a seat. This puts Junqueras not Puigdemont in pole position, as Spanish Prime Minister Socialist Pedro Sánchez tries to find coalition partners. But the likelihood is that both Puigdemont and Junqueras will be elected as MEPs in three weeks’ time – one from exile, the other from jail. And no matter who polls the most votes, one thing’s certain.

There will be no back-biting or recrimination.

Despite the pressure of his own indefinite incarceration, the jailed Junqueras has refused to criticise his exiled political rival and sent a “brotherly hug” to the former Catalan president at a recent press conference: “I thank him for his commitment. We must work so we can all leave prison and come back to Catalonia. Our common aim is much more important than any rows between us.”

What remarkable restraint and vision. Rather than giving the slightest hint of envy or annoyance about the relative freedom enjoyed by Puigdemont (albeit his wife and two children live in distant Barcelona), Junqueras has his eyes on the prize and the road that lies ahead for both of them if they play their cards right – the possibility of release from prison and exile, and the slim but tantalising chance of wringing an official referendum from Spain’s new prime minister as the price for Catalan support.

Let’s hope this common cause and mutual respect amongst Catalan independence supporters is infectious. Perhaps their example can remind Scots we are not alone in challenging an unresponsive state and could push the boat out much further in our bid to create a more muscular civic Scotland.

Gràcies Catalunya.

Jordi Cuixart and The National’s George Kerevan are amongst the authors in Bella Caledonia’s Building A New Catalonia via Lighthouse Books