The EU questions Salmond must answer

The SNP leader should come clean on the euro before lecturing others.

With the exception of Paddy Ashdown, astonishingly few politicians and commentators have made the link between Scotland and Europe. But Cameron's decision to isolate the UK has significant implications for the Scottish National Party [SNP], which has long campaigned for "independence in Europe". As Ashdown wrote in the Observer, "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

From one perspective, Cameron's stance strengthens Alex Salmond's argument that Scotland needs independence to pursue its own policy of European integration. As the SNP leader wrote in his letter to the PM:

Last week's developments in Brussels demonstrate that Scotland urgently needs a voice at the top table when our vital national interests are being discussed, by becoming an independent member state, instead of being shut out of the room.

He followed that up with "six crucial questions" for Cameron on Europe and Scottish interests. But if you strip away the rhetoric, Salmond is avoiding some inconvenient questions of his own.

Until recently, the SNP leader proudly declared that an independent Scotland would join the euro. In 2009, he quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive. "There is no doubt that the plummeting pound and parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably," he said. That, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and, consequently, Salmond has changed tact. Like Gordon Brown circa 2003, he now states that Scotland will retain the pound until it is in the country's "economic advantage" to join the euro.

Whether or not that day comes, there is no majority for Salmond's stance. Polling shows that the Scottish electorate is only marginally less eurosceptic than the UK electorate as a whole. According to a recent YouGov poll, 44 per cent of Scottish voters want to leave the EU (38 per cent want to remain) compared to 47 per cent of UK voters. Similarly, 45 per cent of UK voters think that Britain's EU membership is a "bad thing" and so do 41 per cent of Scots.

Even if Scotland were to join the euro, would Salmond sign up to a fiscal union? Having finally won autonomy over spending and borrowing would he happily submit his annual budgets to Brussels for approval? How would he respond if the EU blocked his long-promised cut in corporation tax? Until he answers these and other questions, Salmond has little right to lecture others.

George Eaton is political editor of 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