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Jeremy Corbyn's Scottish independence dilemma

Scottish unionists don't want another referendum. But if Labour tries to block indyref 2, it hands nationalists a grievance.

Once again, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's hapless leader, is in a muddle. He said at the weekend that he would not block another referendum in Scotland. After outcry from Scottish Labour, he appeared to backtrack and said voting for Scottish independence would lead to "turbo-charged austerity".

Labour's last remaining Scottish MP, Ian Murray, was scathing. In Saturday, he tweeted: "Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies & Gentlemen, I give u Jeremy Corbyn. He's destroying the party that soo many need."

Murray added that his constituents were against another independence referendum. This chimes with a view I've often heard expressed among Scottish Labour politicians - that the axis of Scottish politics has shifted to the constitutional question and the party must have a firm stance if it is to survive.

So long as Labour retains its ambition to be a UK-wide party, it also makes sense to hold onto a unionist position that will not alienate English voters (targeted by the Tories in 2015 with dire warnings about Ed Miliband acting as an SNP puppet).

But most unionists also believe that a second independence referendum must be fought and won, like the last one, on economic issues. The oil price slump has in particular punctured a favourite nationalist argument. 

They fear that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will instead rely on an emotional rallying call, that draws on cultural identity, and the feeling of being ignored by Westminster. The UK government's determination to push on with a hard Brexit, despite Scotland's Remain vote, means the call is already halfway there. 

One unionist activist said to me last week: “Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum. The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”

This, therefore, is Corbyn's bind. A leader who has to rely on an English MP for his shadow Scottish secretary must somehow walk the line between reassuring Labour unionists on both sides of the border, and at the same time avoid giving the Scottish government the chance to pounce.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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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