Browse reviews

Edinburgh Fringe 2019

The Butcher, The Brewer, The Baker…… and the Commentator

Merryn Somerset Webb

Genre: Spoken Word

Venue: Panmure House


Low Down

Trenchant views on the key economic issues facing pre-Brexit Britain.  And some surprisingly relevant links to the hypotheses propounded by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, over two centuries ago.


The Edinburgh intelligentsia are gathering down at Panmure House, the last home of Adam Smith, curious to hear the views of the panel pulled together by MoneyWeek editor and Financial Times columnist Merryn Somerset Webb on the challenges facing our pre-Brexit battered economy.

She’s joined in the surroundings of the Reading Room by two of her colleagues, the charismatic macro-strategist (is that an oxymoron?) Russell Napier and the rather more taciturn Tim Price with the panel being completed by Robert MacIntosh from Heriot Watt University, the organisation that bought Panmure House back in 2008 (just when the financial crisis was about to hit us) and spent a small fortune in restoring it to its current, very elegant state.

The link with Adam Smith is that all of our panel support, to a degree, Smith’s primary hypothesis, that of sustainable capitalism which assumes that it’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer and the baker that we receive our meat, beer and bread but from their regard to their own self-interest – in this case earning a livelihood from their specialisms.

But Smith is often wrongly accused of promoting self-interest above all else with most forgetting that he also felt that “no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

With the panel each asked to quote and then explain the relevance of their favourite passage from Smith’s published works, we had an hour of engaging and erudite discussion on the role of economics, of government and the dangers that each panellist felt we were sleep-walking towards.  What became abundantly clear is that Smith’s hypotheses are as relevant to running a 21st century economy as they were when he penned the bulk of his work at the conclusion of the 18th century.  What also became alarmingly apparent is that the current political class is practising “nonsense economics” which goes by the popular sobriquet of neo-Keynesian economics, often commonly described by its detractors as “spend what you like as you’ll never have to pay it back”.

There’s broad agreement across the panel (and, judging by the murmurs around the room, the audience as well) that free markets offer many advantages and that less government is better than more.  There’s also agreement that too much power has been hoovered up over the past three or four decades by international organisations, private and public that has, in turn, contributed to a poverty in terms of discussion of a number of pivotal societal issues.

It’s refreshing to see a panel that was not afraid of calling a spade a spade.  No-one could be accused of sitting on the fence yet the discussion was balanced, articulate and informative, if a little on the dystopian at times.  You can’t beat a bit of heated agreement.

But it’s very detailed, very technical and, naturally, focused on economics and its related politics.  If that’s your bag, then I’d recommend it without hesitation.  But if not and you still find yourself dragged along to it, then enjoy the Prosecco on offer before hand like the lady sat next to me, who then gently slumbered her way through most of the excitement.