Sam Leith Sam Leith

The grandstanding against the Hay Festival is short-sighted 

Singer Charlotte Church at a Palestinian protest march (Getty)

When the country’s largest literary festival parts ways with its main sponsor, it is not usually a cause for rejoicing among writers, performers, and the sorts of people who like to go to literary festivals. It is usually a disaster for the festival. Yet when on Friday the Hay Festival sacked (yes, it was that way round) the investment fund Baillie Gifford as its main sponsor, it was felt that a mighty blow had been struck against injustice.

The decision was the result of a campaign that took exception to the colour of Baillie Gifford’s money, seeing the company as part of a disaster-capitalist enterprise that profits from the destruction of the planet by investing in fossil fuels, and that indirectly supports Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The singer Charlotte Church, the stand-up comic Nish Kumar and the politician Dawn Butler (Hay’s not as narrowly literary as it once was) have all recently pulled out of the festival as conscientious objectors. On Friday, Hay took fright and caved abjectly. ‘In light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw,’ its chief executive Judy Finch said, ‘we have taken the decision to suspend our sponsorship from Baillie Gifford.’

 ‘Claims’ and ‘pressure’ don’t suggest a leadership taking a principled position so much as bending with the wind – like all those longstanding Garrick members who were surprised and outraged to discover their club didn’t admit women. 

Moral clarity is a hell of a drug. Even if we take as unquestionable axioms that fossil fuels are bad, and that Israel is bad, and that literary festivals are an important good, this seems to me a rash and silly move. How many investment funds can be sure of having no exposure whatever to shares that will fail somebody’s purity test?

Baillie Gifford say, as they have said before, that their exposure to fossil fuels is relatively modest for the sector (two per cent against an industry average of 11 per cent). Charlotte Church declares that ‘only 2 per cent is not good enough’ and talks of their ‘£10 billion in companies with links to Israeli occupation, security apparatus and genocide of Palestinians’. (The phrase ‘links to’, there, is wickedly vague.) But, sure: they are not perfect.  

Who is? My iPhone is the fruit of exploitative labour and conflict minerals. If you have a pension or a bank account, if you use PayPal or Visa to transfer money, you are involved in a system that is complicit in facilitating ethically questionable transactions around the world. And let’s not get started on snorting coke, eating chocolate or buying books from Amazon.

To observe that everything is tainted does not mean that it’s impossible or unnecessary to take principled positions. 

But what is the end game here? If it is to cause investment funds, or even this one investment fund, to stop investing in firms that have any ethically questionable involvements, it fails. Rather, the campaign has taken a fund that does some good things (sponsoring the free exchange of views and ideas in festivals) and some bad things (owning shares in oil companies) and put a firm kibosh not on the latter but on the former. That may allow participants in the festival to feel personally uncontaminated by Bad Things, but it doesn’t do much to improve the world.

The campaigners behind this, Fossil Free Books, claim to want to drive fossil fuel money out of the literary and publishing world. That seems, for all their rhetoric of standing in solidarity with the global south, a weirdly parochial and self-regarding aim. The book world isn’t exactly one of the main arteries through which such money flows in the first place.

In taking this view, incidentally, I find an unlikely ally in George Monbiot. Mr Monbiot is no great defender of capitalism, fan of the fossil fuel industry or cheerleader for the invasion of Gaza, but when asked if he’d be joining the boycott of Hay he said he would not. He said he thought the festival a ‘good cause’ and told the Guardian: ‘We can’t just point to one instance of this Earth-eating, people-eating system and say that, and that alone is the problem.’

He’s right. This is not a consumer boycott of the sort that hits a company in the wallet. Baillie Gifford will be richer, rather than otherwise, for not shelling out a small fortune on sponsoring literary festivals. If the hope was that the threat of refusing its sponsorship would cause this very large company to change its core business model (ie: letting its clients, within the law, make their own ethical decisions), that was a hubristic one; and now their connection with the festival has been severed, such leverage as Hay had will anyway have vanished. 

When it’s said that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, it’s good to remember that the operative word there is ‘unacknowledged’.

And think of this the other way round. What if we said that any companies that invest in fossil fuels (I’ll leave aside the ‘genocide’ in Gaza as being a whole other conversation, and one whose ‘inextricable’ linkage to climate justice doesn’t strike me as self-evident) were to be punished for doing so by being forced to donate a percentage of their profits to good works: sponsoring a literary festival or a book prize, say? It’s hard to see how the current campaigners against Baillie Gifford’s involvement with Hay could be anything other than full-throatedly in favour.

So is it the fact that Baillie Gifford does what it does voluntarily that rankles? Is the problem that by accepting its sponsorship Hay (and the Edinburgh Book Festival, and the Baillie Gifford Prize, and all the rest) lets it ‘artwash’ or ‘greenwash’ its ill-gotten gains? Well, yes and no. It buffs the brand a bit to seem culturally engaged, though probably not in a very measurable way. You could also say that the downside trumped the upside: in engaging with the literary world Baillie Gifford made itself vulnerable to attack by grandstanding celebrities. No good deed goes unpunished. 

The very many other investment firms which are ear-deep in arms companies, rare earth metals, child exploitation, fracking, seal clubbing and so forth, but don’t get stick because bien pensant literary folk have never heard of them, sail on regardless.

And will we now see the beneficiaries of Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship, up to and including the nonfiction prize which bears its name, one by one cut off their noses to spite their faces? If so, that will do a great deal of damage to the literary culture of this country – and absolutely none at all to the fossil fuel industry or, for that matter, the Israeli war machine.