Gordon Brown speaks in Glasgow on August 22, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Gordon Brown has bared the socialist soul he hid as Prime Minister

Fighting against Scottish independence, the former PM makes the case for social justice far better now than when he was in office. 

Labour's Scottish MPs have returned to Westminster from the referendum battle to take part in today's vote on the bedroom tax (one of the issues that the Yes campaign has best exploited). Their number includes Gordon Brown, who delivered a lengthy speech on Scotland in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House this morning. In reference to his now fleeting appearances in parliament, he started by joking that "an official tour guide is showing me round later."

Better Together has often been accused of being too arid and technocratic, of failing to make a passionate and emotional case for the Union, but that is not a charge one can lay at Brown. With the oratorical force that allowed him to so ruthlessly dispatch his political foes (Tory and Labour), he argued that the unique achievement of the UK had been to create and maintain a state in which risks and resources were shared between four nations for the common good of their people. 

"Whereas the European Union is a single market, the United Kingdom is a social market," he observed. "And whereas the Americans share equal civil and political rights, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have gone further by sharing the same social and economic rights": a UK-guaranteed pension; assistance when unemployed, disabled, or sick; free healthcare at the point of need; and minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage. 

He called for a new "statement of national purpose" which stated explicitly that "The Union exists to provide security and opportunity for all by pooling and sharing our resources equitably for our defence, security and the social and economic welfare of every citizen", and urged Ed Miliband to include this proposal in the Labour manifesto. He added that he would "personally" also like to see a formal commitment to "the eradication of poverty and unemployment across the UK and to universal healthcare free at the point of need". 

Brown derided Alex Salmond's claim to the progressive mantle, noting that the SNP's "only" tax proposal was to reduce corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate, and that, unlike Labour, the party did not support a 50p tax rate for earnings over £150,000, a bankers' bonus tax or a mansion tax. The biggest beneficiaries of the corporation tax cut, he noted, would be the privatised utilities. "So here you would have Ed Miliband in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland freezing energy prices. The Scottish National Party in government, not freezing energy prices, because they refuse to do that, not making the energy companies pay the obligation for renewables, which Ed wants to do, but giving them, not a windfall tax, which we did in 1997 on their profits, but giving them a tax cut worth several scores of millions of pound."

Listening to Brown, what was most striking was how he made the case for social democracy with far greater clarity and passion than he ever did while Chancellor or Prime Minister. Then, permanently terrified of vacating the imagined centre ground, he redistibuted by stealth and only introduced a higher top rate of tax after the financial crisis, when it could be justifed as an act of fiscal necessity, rather than distributive justice.

Brown attacks Salmond for planning to cut corporation tax, but during his Chancellorship the main rate was cut from 33 per cent to 28 per cent, and he declared in his 2008 Budget: "I want to go further. We will reduce the tax again when we are able". He certainly never considered anything as radical as an energy price freeze, or a mansion tax (and spoke of but never delivered a "statement of national purpose"). But out of office, Brown has bared the socialist soul he previously disguised. Today he even quoted the old Marxist saw about each giving "according to their abilities" and receiving "according to their needs". 

Ed Miliband's great criticism of his mentor was always that he was scared of his own shadow, too preoccupied with winning over the Daily Mail and the Sun to fight for the social democratic Britain he believed in. It was his growing sense of frustration at the limits of Brown's approach that in part convinced him to run for the leadership in 2010. Red Gordon's performance today was another reminder of the gap between what was and what could have been.

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