Better Together activists campaign on the doors in the Cowcaddens on March 18, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Better Together vs the truth

Who runs the No campaign and why are they trying to insult me?

Like thousands of other Scots over the weekend, I received an extra dose of referendum propaganda with my Sunday papers. It came in the form of a glossy little booklet containing, apparently, “the facts [I needed]” to fully appreciate both the “benefits of staying in the UK” and the “risks of independence”. Bits of it were pretty convincing. A Yes vote may well put some Scottish defence jobs, particularly those dependent on UK government contracts, at risk. Without radical immigration or pensions reform, an independent Scotland could struggle to cope with burgeoning demographic pressures.

Yet, for some reason, the authors of the booklet - Better Together - decided to swamp sensible arguments such as these under a welter of misinformation. For instance, it’s true that goods in Ireland are more expensive than they are in Britain. But Ireland’s per capita GDP is 16 per cent higher than the UK’s ($45,921 compared to $38,920) and the Irish minimum wage is ten per cent higher than the British (£7 per hour compared to £6.31 per hour). It is also true that 65 per cent of all Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK. But so what? Some 70 per cent of Canada’s exports go to the US, yet Canadians seem to be handling their independence relatively well.

The further into the booklet I went, the more spurious the assertions became. Page eight stated: “This year we saw a collapse in the money coming from the North Sea. Had we been independent, this would have taken £4.4bn from our budget. This is equivalent to what we spend on schools in Scotland.” But fluctuating oil revenues are not news. Oil revenues have always fluctuated. The point is that annual variations in North Sea tax returns tend to even out over a five or ten year stretch, as high revenues one year compensate for low revenues the next. 

This is certainly how things have worked in the past and, if Alex Kemp’s research is anything to go by, it’s how they will continue to work in the future. Three years ago Kemp, a professor of petro-economics at Aberdeen University, said North Sea oil was likely to generate between £5bn and £10bn in tax every year for the next decade. This estimate has proved remarkably accurate so far. In 2010/11 revenues were £8.8bn, in ‘11/‘12 they were £11.3bn, in ‘12/‘13 they were £10bn and in ‘13/’14 they were £5.6bn. That amounts to an annual average, over four years, of £8.9bn, which is at the high end of Kemp’s projections. The fact these revenues didn’t arrive in a perfectly consistent annual stream does not, as Better Together seems to believe, present a devastating challenge to the economics of independence. It just means an independent Scottish government would have to manage Scotland’s oil wealth carefully, saving a bit in the good years to cover shortfalls in the bad. 

But the nonsense didn’t stop there. Page ten provided a list of the world’s “richest” countries according to GDP. The list ranked the UK sixth after France and Scotland 45th - after Pakistan. You don’t need a degree in economics to realise how silly this is. There is no inherent relationship between the size of a country’s economy and the wealth of its citizens. Denmark’s economy is substantially smaller than China’s but Danish people are, on average, substantially richer than Chinese people. This is something I assume - and certainly hope - Better Together is aware of.

The booklet was littered with other little contradictions and omissions. On page five it cited finance as one of the things “we are really good at in Scotland”, but then went on to explain how UK taxpayers had to rescue “Scottish banks like RBS” during the financial crisis. On page three it boasted about the “strength” of the Pound, but then failed to mention how that “strength” had contributed to Britain’s massive trade deficit and helped wreck Scottish manufacturing. On pages six, eight and ten it claimed Scotland gets “£1200 more per person in spending than the UK average”, but then completely ignored the important caveat that, over the last five years, Scotland has generated 9.5 per cent of the UK’s tax and received 9.3 per cent of its expenditure.

By the time I reached the end of the booklet I felt both angry and insulted: who on earth runs Better Together and why do they think so little of me as a voter? Which of them, specifically, thought it would be a good idea to dress up a series of ludicrous half-truths as incontrovertible “facts”? I’d like to know – the future of the Union could depend on it.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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