Charles Kennedy: the ideal Lib Dem leader. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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Charles Kennedy’s big what if, Murdoch says goodbye to Brexit, Blatter battered and testing tests

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him.

In 2005, an NS poll found that a majority of our readers would support the Lib Dems in that year’s general election. The reason was that the party, under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, had been the only one in parliament that opposed the Iraq war. But I never believed that, under Kennedy, who has died at 55, the Lib Dems were a serious left-wing force. Their 2005 manifesto, superficially attractive, was designed to maintain and strengthen the middle-class welfare state. It offered nothing for the less fortunate.

Kennedy was an ideal Lib Dem leader, seeming kinder, more human and less dogmatic than leaders of rival parties. He had little grasp of or interest in policy detail but that enabled his party to continue its historic role of appealing across class and ideological boundaries. Even his problems with alcohol and punctuality, known to the dogs in the Westminster street from the early 2000s, contributed to his mellow, easygoing image. He recognised, more clearly than any of his colleagues, the perils of entering a Tory-led coalition in 2010. What he would have done had he still been leader is one of history’s great unanswered questions. In his genial way, he probably would have muddled through while still keeping his party in good health. For all his faults, he was a more substantial politician than Nick Clegg.

 

Blatter’s business

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him. So although Sepp Blatter has now resigned, I note that, during his reign as Fifa president, World Cups have been awarded to South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Qatar, disrupting the accustomed pattern of western Europe hosting every other tournament. Meanwhile, African and Asian countries benefit from wider distribution of Fifa’s profits, a contrast both to the English Premier League’s practice of keeping nearly all profits in-house and to the International Cricket Council’s of channelling them to its richest members, England, Australia and India. No doubt the Fifa regime involved a deal of bribery, but that – as we are always told when British firms want to sell arms to the Middle East – is how much of the world does business.

 

Murdoch casts his vote

We already know the result of the EU referendum: Rupert Murdoch, it is reported, has decided that, despite his previous support for Brexit, it would be too risky for Britain to leave. Murdoch infallibly gets on the winning side in any ballot, even if it entails, as it did in the election campaign, backing the Nationalists in his Scottish papers while his English papers warned that a Labour government dependent on their support was unelectable. No doubt Murdoch calculates that the EU is now sufficiently wedded to “efficient markets” and minimal corporate regulation to represent no threat to his business interests. But his main motive always is to ensure that, whoever triumphs, he can claim the credit.

 

Prize-to-let

The Daily Mail is running a competition for readers “to secure your family’s financial future” by winning a buy-to-let house. For those who don’t win, it explains “how to join the buy-to-let boom”. This is the kind of “aspiration” – to become a landlord exacting the maximum possible price from your fellow humans’ need for shelter – that Labour failed to “get” in its election campaign. Labour promised modest rent controls that might have slowed the “buy-to-let boom”. It tried to meet the aspirations of millions of young families to own their homes, or at least to rent them securely at reasonable cost. Which, everybody said, showed it was out of touch.

 

Arthur Miller and aspiration

The word “aspiration” came to mind again as my wife and I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is the archetypal member of what politicians now call the aspirational classes. “In love with fame and fortune and their inevitable descent on his family”, as Miller said of his Uncle Manny, the model for the character, Loman has nothing in his life except selling, polishing his car, aspiring to greatness for his sons, trying to dissuade his wife from darning stockings (a most unaspirational pastime) and philandering with a woman in Boston. We never learn what he sells. In reality, he’s the buyer, not the seller, and he’s bought something worthless: the American dream.

Miller’s play, written in 1948, now seems astonishingly prescient. Until recently, most Americans genuinely believed they were middle-class and upwardly mobile. Now nearly 48 per cent call themselves “working-and lower-class”, up from 35 per cent in 2008. The American dream has turned sour, creating lives, like Loman’s, of futility and frustration. Before Labour leadership candidates try to sell their version of the dream to the British, they should watch Miller’s play.

 

Cricket is too thrilling

Whatever has happened to Test match cricket? In the first of this summer’s Tests, New Zealand scored their first-innings runs at just under four an over. In the second match, they upped the rate in both innings to just under five an over. (In 1996 the West Indies, then regarded as the world’s most exciting team, scored at well under three an over.) Otis Gibson, England’s bowling coach, remarks: “I don’t really know what to make of it all, the way they bat and stuff.”

I sympathise. Cricket will not benefit from boundaries being hit every over any more than football would if goals came every few minutes. Torrents of fours and sixes may work in Twenty20 matches, lasting under three hours. But who can cope with constant thrills for five whole days? Test matches should allow periods for quiet contemplation, dozing off, browsing the newspaper (or a tablet, if you must) and sipping a pint. Those who need perpetual “highs” should try a substance of some kind.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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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