Authors threatening a boycott over book festival sponsor need to get real – Stephen Jardine

Baillie Gifford was one of the original big investors in Tesla, helping to get the electric car giant going

I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was an ideal world where the sun shone, the Kardashians worked as care home assistants, and water company bosses went straight to jail every time they polluted a river. Also, the arts funded themselves and required no sponsorship or subsidy.

Sadly, the real world is a bit different but that seems to be news to some authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. A group of them signed an open letter urging the organisers to drop any sponsor that invests in fossil fuels, specifically Edinburgh-based Baillie Gifford, said to have £5 billion invested in such schemes. Last month climate activist Greta Thunberg pulled out of an appearance at the Book Festival, accusing the firm of “greenwashing”.

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This corporate practise of spending to make things look better than they are when it comes to the environment is widespread nowadays and pretty loathsome. But this is hardly Saudi Arabia paying for golf tournaments to divert attention from cutting off opponents’ heads. Nor are we talking about companies like British American Tobacco which deserve a special place in hell and shouldn’t be able involved in anything except their own bankruptcy.

In contrast, Baillie Gifford was one of the original big investors in Tesla, helping the electric car giant get off the ground. In fact, until 2019, it was the largest shareholder after company founder Elon Musk. When it comes to fossil fuels, the company says only two per cent of client money is tied up, with more than double that amount invested in firms looking for clean energy solutions.

While others choose to divert their profits to the Cayman Islands, Baillie Gifford has supported the Book Festival for years alongside literary events in the Borders, Wigtown and Ayrshire. If they decide they don’t want the grief of being pilloried in public, what happens next?

The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s artistic director says demonising companies like Baillie Gifford is “counterproductive and shortsighted”. David Greig believes it risks undermining the finances of Scotland’s entire arts sector. “Where do you draw the line?” he asks.

The authors of the open letter called on Baillie Gifford to divest itself of all fossil fuel-linked investments. If not, they demand the Book Festival finds a new sponsor or they will boycott the event.

I suspect Baillie Gifford doesn’t base its corporate strategy on what people who write books want so that means finding a new sponsor. With any potential candidates likely to be scrutinised down to their last receipt for evidence of money-making from anything except cuddling kittens, good luck with that. Plus in the current economic climate, sponsors are quitting, not joining the arts.

A boycott is the last thing anyone wants so instead let’s have a reality check. The authors who travel to Edinburgh by plane or train for the Book Festival depend on the fossil fuels we still need at the moment to get them here.

Investment in alternative clean energy sources to take us forward will come from where we have been. They are two sides of the same coin and irrevocably linked. That’s not the story the signatories to the letter to the Book Festival want to hear but, in the real world, we need to base decisions on fact not fiction.



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