Analysis

Why 'worst possible' timing of Baillie Gifford axing by book festivals will mean fewer events and more expensive tickets

Firm was targeted by activists over links to fossil fuel industry

This time last year, Edinburgh was preparing to welcome the world’s best-known climate activist to one of its flagship events.

Greta Thunberg’s Playhouse appearance had just been declared a 3,000-capacity sell-out by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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Now its organisers appear to be facing the biggest crisis in its history after the abrupt end of its long-standing relationship with main sponsor Baillie Gifford, the firm Thunberg blamed for her 11th-hour withdrawal last year over its links to the fossil fuel industry.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has announced the end of its 20-year partnership with main sponsor Baillie Gifford.The Edinburgh International Book Festival has announced the end of its 20-year partnership with main sponsor Baillie Gifford.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival has announced the end of its 20-year partnership with main sponsor Baillie Gifford.

The event was again targeted last month by campaigners as they demanded nine leading UK literary festivals “end their relationships” with Baillie Gifford.

Festival organisers were warned to “expect escalation, including the expansion of boycotts, increased author withdrawal of labour, and increased disruption” unless Baillie Gifford completely severed its links with the fossil fuel industry.

The Edinburgh event’s decision, said to have been made “collectively” with Baillie Gifford, had looked increasingly likely since the mass withdrawal of writers from the recent Hay Festival in Wales before it suspended its partnership.

Those two decisions have had a dramatic ripple effect on the other book festivals, including three more in Scotland – Wigtown, Borders and Boswell – with Baillie Gifford effectively pulling out of literary events.

Jenny Niven is director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Ian GeorgesonJenny Niven is director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jenny Niven is director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The key question now is how much impact these decisions will have on the scale, quality, accessibility and viability of these festivals – and on the wider cultural landscape.

Given all of the above events have hugely-loyal followings, among authors and audiences, they should be capable of handling the loss of income over the next 12 months. But it seems inevitable they will have to consider scaling back programming, putting up ticket prices, cutting children’s events and/or reducing opportunities for lesser-known writers.

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Attracting new corporate sponsors was increasingly difficult due to the economic climate. Finding ready-made replacements for Baillie Gifford will be virtually impossible given the scale of its involvement.

Supporting arts venues and festivals has now become a big reputational risk for commercial companies, regardless of how deep their pockets are. They need only look at the acts pulling out of the Latitude Festival in England in protest at sponsor Barclay’s links with companies trading in Israel.

But even bigger problems for Scottish cultural events and venues may be looming, given that none of them have any confirmed Scottish Government funding from 2025 and beyond.

Creative Scotland is running out of time to persuade the Government to intervene to ensure it can meet demand for funding that has only grown more critical over recent weeks. Without meaningful action, a much more serious crisis looks likely.

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