Our cuts will be deeper than Thatcher's, says . . . Osborne? Darling?

The Chancellor's comments on spending cuts have caused controversy, but haven't we heard this somewh

A story that has received considerable coverage this morning is Alistair Darling's admission that, even under Labour, drastic public spending cuts will be necessary.

Asked by the BBC how this government's cuts would compare to Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s, he said:

They will be deeper and tougher.

Where we make the precise comparison, I think, is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough.

But, hang on. Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Today, the Guardian has the headline "Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher". Amusingly, a month ago to the day, the Mirror proclaimed: "George Osborne to make spending cuts deeper Margaret Thatcher's".

The article quotes the Tory shadow chancellor as saying:

Yes -- tougher than Margaret Thatcher. We are not shy about taking the tough decisions.

George Osborne has today been quick to jump on Darling's comments as evidence that "Labour has been found out", and has been dishonest in claiming that it can continue to spend.

This is disingenuous: no one denies that cuts will be necessary, but the question, as our economics columnist David Blanchflower, among others, has pointed out, is one of timing.

But Darling's remarks do indicate inconsistency in Labour's position -- the party has appeared torn between a Keynesian agenda and the urge to follow the Tory promises of swingeing cuts, in much the same way as the Tories have clearly felt compelled to out-Labour Labour on the NHS.

The close symmetry of Osborne and Darling's phrasing is almost beyond satire. But this seems to be less a common admission of an indisputable truth (that we must have "tougher" cuts than Thatcher's, asap) and more another sign of the void of ideology that lies at the centre of the present political debate.

Voter apathy is hardly surprising. It doesn't look like much of a choice, does it?

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear