The Baillie Gifford boycott shows extremism is sullying the UK's literary festivals

In the losers’ column is the book-loving public. Thinking society is at a loss, too

The Hay Festival is a 10-day event that takes place every year in Wales
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Protests against the sponsorship of cultural events have become a toxic sideshow in the highly charged political atmosphere that reigns in the UK.

So it was admirable to see Baillie Gifford, one of the sponsors on the receiving end of the rigmarole of protests and supposed exposes, take a stand by withdrawing its funding from the literary scene last week. The fund manager had been hit by a boycott threat at several of the UK’s biggest literary events, including the Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The model of a week-long or weekend retreat to concentrate on books is a phenomenon that has grown for decades. People get a lot out of these events, as a recent column on these pages beautifully set out. What is now in need of a corrective is the hobby horse campaigning that goes on around the festivals.

I mentioned the charged political environment in the UK. The dividing lines thrown up by what is deemed “woke” or acceptable are toxic to everything, from politics to exhibits and salons. The election in the UK has this undertow and if, as the polls indicate, the opposition wins on July 4, this is one battleground that will become even more bitter.

That is because the Labour Party has a kind of internal dialogue that prioritises incorporation of grievances into rules and regulations. The doctrinaire involvement of the government in addressing what is acceptable and how remedies emerge is something that the party would mainstream in the UK.

A defeated right-wing caucus is bound to drop any pretence that it has centrist inclinations and would go full throttle to fight the battle against wokeism. Public awareness of this major shift would generate plenty of grist to work with on the right. Traditional liberal rules of perspective and tolerance are unlikely to be represented much among the elected.

Organisers of smaller festivals rely on relationships with sponsors to keep up the year-round effort of putting together these events

That prospect is one of the reasons that Baillie Gifford is right to cut its losses and vacate the space. Other sponsoring firms should do so, too. The damage to the festivals will be severe, but a select group of the most prominent trustees have only themselves to blame.

Baillie Gifford is a fund manager. It has an unusual promotions strategy of deep involvement in supporting writers and the world of books. It was targeted in the most recent Hay incident by a campaigning group called Fossil Free Books. As the name suggests, the campaigners want to drive climate goals by ostracising energy firms from the literary sphere.

According to Nick Thomas, a partner with Baillie Gifford, just 2 per cent of its clients’ money is invested in companies with some business related to fossil fuels. “We hold the activists squarely responsible for the inhibiting effect their action will have on funding for the arts in this country,” he explained. “Baillie Gifford is a long-term investor with high ethical standards and a complete focus on doing what is right by our clients.”

Organisers of smaller festivals rely on relationships with sponsors to keep up the year-round effort of putting together these events. It is not untypical for a sponsor to provide about 8 per cent of the overall revenues, which is crucial to the period when no cash flow is coming in.

One of the events that Baillie Gifford has pulled out of is the Wigtown Book Festival.

It is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, having been sponsored by the investment management firm for the past 14 years. Afterwards, Wigtown said it was hitting “hard times” as it set out an appeal for people to become a “book town friend”. That way “Scotland’s National Book Town” will still run its festival between September 27 and October 6.

The boycott of the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year drew a backlash from dissenting authors who warned of a “deeply retrograde” development hitting the industry.

The diversity of the written word is such that the authors used to take pride in the golden threads that ran through generations of writers and themes. Now, instead, we have entered the world of the purity test where the hobby horse publicists are taking the upper hand.

People will still flock to literary festivals because of the atmosphere and the convivial settings. There is no doubt that there will be even more of a trend of different types of book festivals for people who share opposing viewpoints. At the same time, that world is likely to lose some of its sheen with fewer resources.

The lessened pizzazz will, in the long run, prove a handicap for the industry overall. It is not just the campaigners who will bear responsibility for this but some of the trustees making decisions that haven’t been thought through.

In the losers’ column is the book-loving public. Thinking society is at a loss, too. In the vacating of common ground, the only winners are the extremists and practitioners of political grandstanding.

Published: June 10, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: June 11, 2024, 10:53 AM