As Edinburgh book festival's Baillie Gifford sponsorship deal is forced to end, it's time to stand up to activists' political thuggery – Scotsman comment

Trying to demonise companies like Baillie Gifford weakens our ability to tackle climate change, which requires a ‘whole society’ response

In an open letter, more than 60 of Scotland’s leading literary figures – including Alexander McCall Smith, Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Robert Crawford, Liz Lochhead, and Val McDermid – have expressed their profound concern at the campaign to force Edinburgh International Book Festival to drop investment management firm Baillie Gifford as a sponsor. It may have come too late.

For, on Thursday evening, as signatories to the letter were still being gathered, came the news the writers had hoped to prevent: the festival’s 20-year partnership with the company had ended as a result of “intolerable pressure” from climate activists. Jenny Niven, the event’s chief executive, said the mutual decision had been taken with “great regret” but that, with “a major global festival starting in ten weeks’ time... we need to focus all of our efforts and energy on delivering a safe and successful event for our audiences”.

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As one might expect, the writers’ letter sets out the arguments against such cultural boycotts in compelling prose. “To have any effect on investment practices, we must exert the kind of influence only friends have over each other. We believe that story-telling, witness, theatre, poetry, conversation, reading and argumentation are crucial to this process, and that it would be perverse to destroy the means of our own political leverage and influence,” they write.

Books, the festivals which celebrate them and the writers who produce them are hugely valuable to society (Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Books, the festivals which celebrate them and the writers who produce them are hugely valuable to society (Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Books, the festivals which celebrate them and the writers who produce them are hugely valuable to society (Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Letter in Full: Open letter regarding sponsorship of Edinburgh International Boo...

“Our work depends on the robustness and integrity of the platforms that allow us to broadcast and promote our words, and to engage and meet our readers. Without the support of EIBF and other book festivals, and without the spaces provided by theatres and other cultural venues, our voices will merely grow quieter, and our young and emerging writers may never be heard at all.”

Profoundly chilling

Book festivals are unique places where people from all over the world, with an array of different perspectives, come together to talk about ideas. They are a living, real demonstration of the benefits of freedom of speech. They represent some of our society's most intelligent, compassionate and thoughtful forums.

Activists’ attempts to make these events bend to their will – or face damaging boycotts and disruptive protests – represent political thuggery at its worst. It is utterly unacceptable and, indeed, profoundly chilling. If this was being done by the far-right, the outrage would be so widespread that such a campaign would have no effect. Instead, in this case, the festival and Baillie Gifford have effectively been forced to part ways.

It is worth noting that the signatories to the letter are concerned about climate change and also the situation in Gaza, another factor in the activists’ campaign. The letter states it is “absolutely right to keep up the pressure for fossil fuel divestment” and calls for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and for the release of hostages”. So the writers and the activists share some common ground.

Part of the solution

The difference is the latter’s unreasonable zeal. They may think that Baillie Gifford is part of the problem, but it is not – or at least no more than any of us. The firm invests just 2 per cent of its clients’ money in companies “with some business related to fossil fuels” and “far more in companies helping drive the transition to clean energy”. So it is actually part of the solution.

Climate change is a problem of such scale that it requires a ‘whole society’ response. Large companies – from energy giants to investment firms – are foundation stones of our economy and, therefore, are necessarily part of that process.

By trying to pull the house down, hard-left activists will only damage our attempts to prevent dangerous climate change. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

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