Six contrarian books for Christmas

Merryn Somerset Webb picks six of her favourite contrarian books to help you look clever and perhaps win a few arguments over the Christmas dinner table.

Stock of books © Getty Images

(Image credit: Stock of books © Getty Images)

Earlier this week the middle classes of Edinburgh converged on the city's newest and most fashionable bookshop, Topping, to drink mulled wine, eat mini mince pies, buy slightly more highbrow books than they normally would (the neighbours were there) and take advantage of some glorious free gift wrap.

I fell down a little: I was caught by one of my cleverer neighbours with a pile of clearly-for-me unwrapped murder mysteries on my way out (I'm currently working my way through Louise Penny, if you must know). Sigh.

Covering them with my son's new Asterix didn't help, however, as the best Edinburgh kids read Asterix in French. I'll be trying harder at Christmas. And so will you.

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You see, I know what you want for Christmas. You don't want socks or a crackly M&S jumper. You want interesting contrarian opinions the kind that will make you look like the cleverest person at the lunch table. And you want the ability to back up those opinions so that you don't look the dimmest by tea time.

A selection of books follows. Buy them, skim them, give them to family members who need improving. Explain the important bits over champagne in the morning; let them read about how right you are in the afternoon. Job done.

Start with a short volume by Peter Saunders called Social Mobility Truths. This is a data-heavy book, but here's one stat to surprise you: a sample of people born between 1980 and 1984 shows that even before the age of 30, more than 75% of them "were already occupying a different class than their parents".

The UK, says Saunders, is not a static society characterised by inequality of opportunity. It is "remarkably fluid and open" and has been for 50 years "although you'd never know it listening to our politicians".

My guess is that not all of your family are going to take this idea lying down. The odds are that you are going to end up rowing about inequality over the turkey anyway. This takes us neatly to redistribution and hence to tax. Dominic Frisby's Daylight Robbery, How Tax Shaped Our Past and will Change our Future is as rollicking a good read as you can hope for when it comes to fiscal policy.

For Frisby, the modern tax system is an antiquated and exploitative nonsense one that has been distorting everything since long before the Window Tax part destroyed the health of a generation in the 1690s.

Misguided taxes started the Peasants Revolt, brought down Margaret Thatcher, created the United States and kicked off the French Revolution (among many others). You can't look at history without looking at how tax has shaped it which rather suggests we should shape it better.

Frisby's solutions? Abolish most taxes, keep the rest at flat rates, and introduce a land value tax he argues that land (as opposed to buildings on land) is a natural wealth that should be shared by all. There's an idea that should last you for your entire post-lunch Christmas walk around the walls of someone else's estate.

Sticking with tax and spend, Margaret Hodge has produced Called to Account: How Corporate Bad Behaviour and Government Waste Combine to Cost us Billions. She is outraged by the tax gap and by the tax legally lost to the companies that "create an artificial structure of companies across the world with the sole purpose of shifting profits out of the UK to avoid paying tax".

If you want to know how that works (hopefully not with a view to replicating it), it is all in here. So are many trying stories of a "mind boggling waste of taxpayers' money across the government".

These are mostly driven by the refusal of the state to back down when things go wrong (think Universal Credit), or by its failure to understand that other people's money is real money (remember former BBC deputy director-general Mark Byford being made redundant with a "sweetener" pay-off of about £1m?). Add to this tales of awful procurement (handcuffs cost some police forces £14 and some £43) and a scary lack of accountability. Detailed. Maddening. Sometimes funny.

Frisby and Hodge come at this from different political angles. Hodge believes the government can transform lives, Frisby really wishes they would stop trying. But they also long for the same things: transparency, accountability and a more careful civil service.

Sticking with the role of government (and the institutions it supports), I loved Extreme Economies by Richard Davies. He may not have meant it as a defence of capitalism, but it works as one. In it, Davies travels to various marginal economies to work out what differentiates the good from the bad. The answer? Trading is a "natural human ability".

Give people a basic infrastructure to work from (transport is key); leave them alone to build human and social capital, and they will probably thrive. Let state institutions get too involved and they probably won't.

Take two refugee camps in Jordan: Zaatari and Azraq. One has porous borders, turns a blind eye to cash and allows kiosks to pop up anywhere to trade anything. The other has hard borders, no cash and close regulation of trade. Guess which one has the most impressive economy? How's that for the invisible hand in action?

"The places where state control was so strong that free trade had no chance of sprouting were the bleakest and most forlorn that I visited," says Davies. There might be an election message hidden in there.

My penultimate pick is for those of you who keep asking me for an ETA for the next financial crisis. I can't tell you. But Richard Vague, author of A Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises can at least tell you what to watch namely, how fast private debt levels are rising relative to GDP.

We all know that an explosion of private debt (and the overcapacity that created) predated the Great Financial Crisis. But look to everything from the Great Depression to the Japanese crisis and the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis and you will see the same dynamic. Niche stuff but my kind of niche stuff.

Finally, something cheering. By the end of Christmas Day, every household in Britain should contain a copy of Guinness World Records 2020. That's partly because most rows can be defused by someone mentioning that the largest hula hoop ever hula-ed was 5.18 metres in diameter. But it's also because only a world getting steadily more prosperous could produce people with the time and energy to compete over the longest time a water-skier can be pulled by a blimp (11.1km). Happy shopping. And happy arguing.

This article was first published in the Financial Times

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.