HOW odd. There are still dreadful outcomes possible from the sad spectacle of two massively talented pro-independence politicians carving lumps out of each other.

But before Sturgeon’s appearance in front of the Parliamentary Standards committee, I wouldn’t have predicted a 7000 spike in SNP membership as a consequence (on track, I am told, for 10,000 by this morning).

After seeing the show, it’s less of a surprise. The Scottish Conservatives have an attack meme out at the moment, editing together 50 varieties of Sturgeon saying “I don’t know” through her eight-hour testimony.

They’re entirely missing the point about the real “truth” communicated on Wednesday. Which was much more psychological, emotional and embodied than about questions of breaching the ministerial code or multi-agency conspiring.

With a relaxed body language, an open face and an everyday fluency, Sturgeon essentially asked her committee (and the watching audience): what would you have done, how would you have handled it, in my circumstances?

Where a close friend and mentor of 30 years revealed an aspect of his behaviour which you (and your organisation, and the wider culture) found offensive? Wouldn’t the conflict between your emotional attachment, and your official responsibilities, also have disoriented you? Would you have been able to get things perfectly right?

In this roiling sea of pain and regret, amplified by the rightful demands of a #MeToo movement emboldening women to seek redress, where would the impetus for a massive conspiracy against Alex Salmond actually come from? Wouldn’t it have been demanding enough to do “the best you could” by following due process, trying to act judiciously towards all parties involved? Don’t you think all this mess and blurriness is quite understandable?

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To be clear: I’m only outlining Sturgeon’s take, not endorsing it. It’s interesting enough to analyse how well it seems to have worked.

I caught Michael Russell on Channel 4 News the same day, completing the arc of the “honest Nicola” narrative: “She told the truth exhaustively, in the way that she tells it – as a human being who has failings, who’s got things wrong and has apologised for those things.”

How much can this kind of testimony really be a strategic “performance”? It has to thrum and resonate from some inner position of clarity and confidence, some standing upon reality. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush tweeted, “either Nicola Sturgeon is the best actor in the world (not something we would have added to her list of undoubted strengths) [or] she clearly thinks he was guilty”.

James Foley from Source Direct (disclosure: I’m on the board of its parent company, Common Weal) tends towards the former assumption. A fine contrarian, Foley wrote the other day that Sturgeon’s emotional displays were providing “fandom service”. By this James means that, in order to provide “connection with the leader” for her fans – who we know by their #IStandWithNicola posted all over social media – Sturgeon deliberately cranked up her “relatability”.

This emo-politics is a substitute “for doing things or taking institutional responsibility. Rather than representing interests, politicians represent (via gestures) the pains and traumas they imagine we have experienced”, continues Foley. (Or conversely, invite us to identify with their experiences).

Foley is a little cranky about his preferred alternative to the “relatable” model of politician. This seems to be Cholmondley-Warner-like oddballs standing stiffly at their mantelpieces, who would rather quote the Aeneid than ask you to “stand in their shoes”.

Rather than share their empathetic juices with politicians, Foley’s ideal citizens keep them in touch with reality, by imposing “collective discipline and pain” on them.

This is excellently provocative stuff, but highly contestable. Take the mesmerising shamans of the tribal era, or the dramatic rhetoricians of the Greek agora, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” (softening up a radio public for the New Deal). It would be bizarre to imagine a politics of human groups which didn’t involve leaders exercising charisma, seduction or identification in some way.

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Foley uses the concept of “parasociality” to explain political fandom. This means people who overly identify with personalities in the media landscape, whether celebrities in general or politicians in particular, imagining them to be their most idealised friends.

This political fandom “tells politicians that we are with them, no matter how badly they screw us”, concludes Foley. “And they present the risk of genuinely democratic forces being railroaded.”

You’d have to be insensate not to notice the “parasocial” nature of some support for Sturgeon. Or, to be honest, to ignore its function. A stateless nation needs its collective cringe factor to reduce, for any kind of progress towards autonomy to happen. Sturgeon’s “relatability” contributes to this rise in Scottish self-confidence, in the same way as Billy Connolly, Margo MacDonald, Jimmy Reid (and, prior to their respective stooshies, Alex Salmond and Tommy Sheridan) once did.

Can “genuinely democratic forces be railroaded” by our entrancement with charismatic politicians? See the storming of the US Capitol building for a one-line answer to that.

But with a cross-party Holyrood committee invited by Salmond to hoover up information, and a second investigation by James Hamilton (a Salmond appointee, remember), still wide-open as to its judgements, I don’t think we can claim that processes of accountability are being undemocratically traduced here. No matter how many waves of charisma, of radically different kinds, are swilling round the Robert Burns Rooms.

HOWEVER, if we go back into the human and social sciences, we can find research which should alert us to the power of emotions in public life. Last October I wrote in this column about “visceral politics”. This is a new branch of neuroscience which studies how political appeals can mesh with our deep biological needs for balance, security and flourishing (or “homeostasis”, as the neuroscientists call it).

I noted then that Sturgeon was, consciously or not, doing visceral politics. Not just through her calm and reliable daily appearances during the Covid crisis, but also by the way her language of “love”, “hope” and “solidarity” was probably triggering primary and deeply evolved drives of care and sadness among viewers.

As she triggered these drives, Sturgeon was also providing the vocabulary by which stress-relieving emotions could be constructed in the populace. According to the neuroscience, this language wasn’t just emo-blah, or “parasocial” babble. It would have positive physiological effects, particularly on a national community freaked and strained by the pandemic.

Did Sturgeon bring all that well-honed visceral fluency – a fluency which social workers sometimes call “use of self” – to the Burns committee room on Wednesday? Without a doubt. Might Sturgeon’s taste for artful contemporary fiction have further equipped her – made her able to tell rich, subtle stories about the self (indeed, her “self”) in order to powerfully frame the context for specific events? You betcha.

I’ve no doubt that Sturgeon’s emotional and cultural literacy was the key to her getting out of an eight-hour session not just alive, but thriving. I’m also sure it’s the reason for the burst of 10,000 extra members. I’ll be honest: I still don’t know whether she’s entirely free of the charge of procedural misconduct, and whether her first ministership will survive the process.

But what a piece of work is Nicola! Worth watching as she proceeds through the complex swirl of early-21st-century public life, skilfully navigating these “nervous states” (as William Davies puts it) of nation and mind. Leading independence or not, I will always be fascinated by her next move.