HEY! Look – over there. Conscription!

And we all duly obliged.

In newspaper and media newsrooms, at bus stops and cafes, around dinner tables and canteen tables, we ploughed hours and emotional energy into a non-proposal (roundly dismissed by the actual armed forces) promoted by a nearly non-Prime Minister kicking off a non-winnable General Election campaign. Classic.

Of course, it’s understandable Rishi Sunak would set this authoritarian hare running in a desperate bid to shore up his disillusioned core vote in England – and also unsurprising that even Yes voters got caught up in the furore.

After all, the main economic, social and constitutional issues are so well-rehearsed that few voters anywhere are undecided about the hopeless Tories.

Indeed, since conscription would be funded by draining the levelling-up budget, Michael Gove’s decision to quit days earlier took on new significance. The Levelling Up Secretary said: “No one in politics is a conscript. We are volunteers who willingly choose our fate.”

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A tiny, stampey-footy protest over a PM’s unworkable policy.

Meanwhile, I’d guess few Labour supporters are genuinely excited about Keir Starmer’s “me too” agenda – almost indistinguishable from Tory norms – which will let Brexit and Margaret Thatcher’s privatisations survive another destructive decade – at least.

So, it’s no surprise that “new”, ideas like conscription captured the collective attention as compulsively as that puddle on Sunak’s lapel as it morphed into a small river on the Downing Street podium last week.

There’s a lesson in there for the SNP – and a warning.

New, big ideas (preferably worked out) do cause a stir and get folk talking. And yet, that’s nigh on impossible for the SNP – a party that can’t become the next Westminster government – unless it talks big about independence and outlines a way to enact it.

Despite John Swinney actually mentioning the i-word during interviews without prompting – something that happened rarely on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch – it’s not enough to set the pulse racing.

The National:

And in the absence of a big idea, a different reality inevitably emerges. SNP candidates are not being judged on their (yet to be published) manifesto for Westminster, views on conscription or promise of a debate on recognition of Palestine (welcome though that is.) Westminster candidates are being judged on the performance of the Scottish Government and even SNP-led councils. Not fair, not democratically appropriate – but precisely how it is on the ground.

Take Caithness which has a newly enlarged seat – probably the largest in Europe – and an excellent young mum and crofter Lucy Beattie who’s based near Ullapool.

But that west coast port is a language, culture, landscape and several long, empty cleared glens away from the towns of the east coast. So new candidates must work hard just for name recognition and even harder to overcome the strong feeling locally that the northern Highlands have simply been forgotten.

Speaking to a committed bunch of Yessers in Wick last week, even they reeled off a list of Holyrood complaints when asked about Westminster voting intentions.

Problems with Wick Maternity Hospital ranked highest, followed by the enduring lack of a rail link across the Dornoch Firth that might take an hour off the zig-zagging rail journey north. And folk complain of potholes – not even a direct Holyrood responsibility.

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It’s the same across the Highlands. Skye recently hit the headlines after a woman died and another suffered a severe allergic reaction near Portree hospital on the Saturday of a music festival in May. Six years ago, a review recommended it should be open for urgent, non-emergency care 24/7. But currently that’s only available by appointment at ends of weekends at 7.30pm.

I’d guess no other issue occupies the minds of Sgiathanachs right now except hospital care and that other related hardy perennial – affordable housing. It seems staffing problems at Portree Hospital are partly responsible for those curtailed opening hours and that’s down to a total lack of affordable housing for NHS staff, on an island where long-term lets have been converted into short holiday cottage rentals.

There is absolutely nothing new about this. And the issues are not Westminster-related. But they will trip up SNP candidates time and again unless voters believe health boards, councils and the Scottish Government have serious plans to address all of this.

So, getting on to the front foot with the housing emergency may do more than anything else to help the party’s Highland Westminster candidates.

But we hear that Scotland’s chief civil servant thinks this would be “ultra vires” and any kind of political initiative at Holyrood is out of order during a Westminster election campaign.

The National: Leaflets for a Yes vote

Now, MSPs are doubtless spending every waking moment canvassing for their Westminster colleagues right now. But a big, bold (and thought through) announcement on affordable housing by the Scottish Government might do more than a week pounding the streets to regain the initiative and boost voter morale.

It may anger civil servants, but the clues in the name “housing emergency” and the political reality is that every opposition party leader – especially Douglas Ross – is fighting the Westminster election on Scottish Government responsibilities – teacher numbers, NHS waiting lists and homelessness.

If the tanks are being parked on Holyrood lawns, the Scottish Government needs to stop worrying about unwritten rule-bending and respond with something big.

Will they?

In his latest blog Jim Sillars says: “Take the visits of Sunak and Starmer last week. It wasn’t the Westminster group who were in their sights.

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“Their political fire was directed at the Scottish Government: Sunak on education and Starmer on the [Michael] Matheson case. Tory and Labour will continue to fight on condemnation of John Swinney and his administration, with SNP candidates being challenged to justify what Sturgeon, Humza and Swinney Governments have done, not done, or messed up.”

Jim thinks SNP MPs have brought this on themselves. “Down in London they have been parrots, taking orders from Sturgeon, Humza [Yousaf] and Swinney, with never a word of criticism, not one step in distancing themselves from the shambles those three have created. As the old Scots saying goes ‘If you flee wi’ the craws, you get shot wi’ the craws’.”

Now certainly, Sturgeon hardly consulted “her” Westminster team and that’s not visibly changed much under Swinney, though Stephen Flynn certainly made his mark with the change of pace forced upon Labour by the SNP over Gaza.

But the difficulty getting voters to focus on immigration, economic policy, taxation, benefits, energy, foreign policy, defence and other reserved WM issues isn’t mostly the fault of MPs – it’s actually a backhanded compliment to Holyrood and the relative success of a Parliament that’s not distant, unaccountable and mired in fairly foreign right-wingery.

The National: Keir Starmer

The Scottish Parliament is real, recognisable and familiar – expected to deliver, fix problems and take pelters if problems persist.

Westminster is an immutable fixture – archaic, lumbering and slow. Starmer is meant to be the sharpest kid on the British block and even he won’t establish a modern, proportional voting system in the next five years. Ditto abolishing the ludicrous House of Lords. It’s like watching democratic dad-dancing. Vaguely embarrassing and totally behind the curve.

No wonder Westminster and its elections are generally miserable affairs with low turnouts – except when hi-jacked by a single-issue charlatan like Boris “Get Brexit Done” Johnson.

So, it’s not fair but it is a reality. Scottish voters need big, bold domestic policy ideas now from the SNP – and the party needs to listen to voter discontent on doorsteps and use that to develop longer-term policy solutions before the all-important Scottish elections in 2026.

This election can still be won for independence – but who dares always wins.