RUMOUR has it that the French President-elect, Emmanuel Macron, is going to straighten the croissant. In response, Angela Merkel is muttering about outlawing Christmas trees, while Paolo Gentiloni, in the Palazzo Chigi in Rome, has issued an edict banishing garlic from Italian menus. Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps a tad, but none of these is much more far-fetched than the promises our own politicians spout when they’re in the grip of election fever.

Next week will see the publication of party manifestos. Not since the final Harry Potter novel have works of fantasy been so eagerly anticipated. When they arrive, we can expect numbers and statistics and targets to gush like water from a hosepipe. And to disappear down the drain just as fast.

You’d think political parties would learn from the past, but one thing they never grasp is that wishing for something, and repeating it like a cuckoo clock, does not make it happen. The eagerness with which they throw big figures around would make an actuary dizzy.

Labour might regret airing its intention to add 10,000 to the police force, but Diane Abbott’s arithmetical Armageddon has done nothing to diminish the Tories’ zeal to employ 10,000 NHS staff dedicated to mental health, and reduce net immigration from six figures to five. Nor has it dented the Liberal Democrats’ determination to add one per cent to income tax, to be spent on the NHS, or Ukip’s brainwave solution to immigration, in which for every person allowed to enter the country, another must leave. Meanwhile, Labour has pledged to reduce child obesity by 50 p[er cent in 10 years. And on it goes.

Is it too late to beg all parties to stop making pledges, and start instead talking policy? We are not children, to be tempted by the lure of more pocket money, but sufficiently wise to detect a fanciful target or back-of-an-envelope figure when we hear it. Yet in this respect our leaders are clueless, parcelling politics into soundbites to toss in our direction like iced buns to an elephant.

What most of us want, however, is context, and robust, imaginative proposals. Like the next person, I have no idea the difference 10,000 or for that matter 100,000 extra mental health experts would make to improving society. The same goes for police officers, nurses or teachers. Surely it would be wiser to offer greater detail instead on the idea behind the notional figure. If they could credibly explain what they hope to achieve, the battle is surely half won – even if, in the end, they have fewer resources to commit than they had expected, and the process takes longer.

On my way to vote last week, I was waylaid by a veteran Labour supporter making an11th-hour pitch. The SNP had made a grievous mistake, he said, pinning its reputation to education. I had to agree, although his blandishments did nothing to change my mind.

Nicola Sturgeon is not wrong to insist her party will improve education, but in making it the key issue on which her government is to be judged, she risks damaging its credibility. The problems facing education can be partly ascribed to the constant amending of syllabus and strategy, a state of perpetual change in recent years which a well-advised John Swinney can hopefully improve. The changing goal-posts and flux that these have caused, however, are only a symptom of a struggling sector, not the cause.

Like a great oak, the roots of any malaise spread as far underground as the tree soars above. The reasons why some schools are in difficulties are complex, but their origins lie less in the exam system or the way children are taught, than in wider society. Behind every classroom door are 20 or 30 individuals who reflect the outside world. They are a microcosm of the fabric of families and communities, the quality of health and housing, of attitudes to learning and aspiration, the impact of changing technology, patterns of addiction and alienation, generational deprivation, and so on. The list of ingredients that go into making a pupil’s experience and future is never-ending, and for anyone to think they have the answer to all of that is either exceptionally ambitious, or deluded. As well stand up and tell us they can fix all society’s ills and, by snapping their fingers, bring about global peace.

Yet none of us expects that. We do not believe in miracles any more than we believe Theresa May cares a jot about our welfare north of the Border. What voters want is straight talking. We need to see the policy behind the suspiciously round numbers and slogans. We want to be shown the road a party wants to coax us down, even if there might be hair-pin bends and tough climbs along the way.

MSPs and MPs should know by now that when they make a vow, they are on quicksand. Tell us that the way to achieve a healthier population is to tax sugar, or increase spending on public sports facilities, and we will listen. Give us their word that they can halve child obesity in a decade, and they have taken a hostage to fortune. No matter how well their policy works, if it falls short of that trumpeted goal, they will be deemed to have failed. And to have lied.

When promises are broken, politicians deserve all the ordure thrown their way. Mistrust of them deepens. Even well-intentioned vows look like gimmicks when trotted out blithely to camera or mike. And as we are constantly offered shorthand, so our attention span shrinks. By talking in terms of easy fixes and glib assurances, our leaders steadily undermine the quality and complexity of discourse. Maybe they do not relish the prospect of in-depth conversations on doorsteps about their policies, but it should be for us to decide we have heard enough, not them.

You can be sure that when the manifestos are published, weasel words will be sprinkled like hundreds and thousands, and big numbers rolled out like marzipan. For whatever reason, parties seem childishly eager to sugar-coat their ideas with pledges. Perhaps they think it makes them look bold and decisive. What we want, in fact, is not empty gestures, but something of substance to chew on. Is it too much to assume that’s what serious politicians want as well?