Sam Leith Sam Leith

The terrible consequences of the Hay Festival grandstanding

Charlotte Church at a rally in support of Gaza (Credit: Getty images)

Just three weeks ago, I wrote about Hay Festival sacking their main sponsor Baillie Gifford after pressure from the campaign group Fossil Free Books, which claimed the investment fund was profiting from the destruction of the planet and ‘genocide’ in Gaza. Whatever their merits of these charges (not much, as it happens), I argued, the sacking of a literary festival’s sponsor would do great harm to the festival and make no impact whatsoever on the fossil fuel industry or the lives of people in Gaza. Worse, I worried, would be if the campaigners scented blood and others followed suit. This could be a disaster for the arts in this country.

In the three weeks since I last wrote about this, the dominoes have gone down faster than I had dared to imagine. Baillie Gifford has now entirely withdrawn from funding literary festivals; and on Saturday it was reported that Barclays Bank (targeted by Bands Boycott Barclays over investments in the defence sector) has smartly kiboshed its involvement in the Latitude, Download and Isle of Wight Festivals. My colleague Martin Vander Weyer’s crisp prediction here a fortnight ago that ‘corporate sponsorship of the arts is dead’ is looking more and more like a simple truth. 

It has crippled the spaces in which ideas of all sorts can be aired and exchanged

I’m put in mind of the old analogies used to make sense of chaos theory and cascade effects: a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane on the other side of the world. Charlotte Church – Charlotte blimming Church – flounces in a rainy town in the Welsh Marches and the UK arts sector loses millions and millions and millions of pounds of funding within a matter of months. And with that goes, among other things, the free events that book festivals run for schoolchildren, the affordable ticket prices that prevent these just being talking shops for the wealthy, and the support and solidarity they offer to emerging writers who don’t have Charlotte Church’s marketing budget.   

‘It’s not about purity: it’s about strategy.’ That is the set phrase that spokespeople for Fossil Free Books have taken to reciting; in particular when its supporters are accused of hypocrisy in continuing to use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or offering their books for sale through Amazon (one of the companies from which they demanded Baillie Gifford divest) and Waterstones (owned by an investment fund unapologetically deep into the fossil fuel industries).  

The burden of this, as I understand it, is to say that the action against Baillie Gifford was taken not because they are uniquely bad, but because they were a company over which leverage was available. We did this, in other words, because it was possible. We don’t have a choice over where our books are sold (not true, as it happens), but even if we did, policing individual probity is a distraction; the problems we seek to fix are systemic, so we must attack the system itself in its corporate manifestations.    

But even on their own terms, qua strategy, this action was a terrible failure. As Fossil Free Books scrambled to emphasise while, one by one, the festivals lost their sponsors – the first ones willingly; the later ones powerless to prevent it – destroying festivals’ finances wasn’t the point of the exercise. They hoped, rather, to apply moral pressure on Baillie Gifford to change its investment profile in a way they approved of. We never meant for this​ to happen. The stable door bangs on its hinges. 

Their leverage was at once laughably less than they imagined; and, catastrophically, far greater. Less, in the sense that these stamping butterflies had not the faintest chance of decisively changing an international investment fund’s policies (still less its duties to its clients); greater, in the sense that, as they discovered by irrevocable experiment, it really doesn’t take much to make it more trouble than it’s worth for businesses to invest in the arts.  

‘Another failed campaign for the Left,’ as one supporter of Fossil Free Books I ran into recently put it with wan good grace. It’s more than just a failed campaign, though. It’s a terrible own goal. It hasn’t caused a red cent to be divested from fossil fuels or saved a single Palestinian life – but it has crippled the spaces in which ideas of all sorts can be aired and exchanged. 

And I think at the root of its dementedly ill-thought-through version of pragmatics – that supposed ‘strategy’ which gave not a moment’s thought to what would happen if, rather than bowing meekly to the campaigners’ demands, the Baillie Gifford people blew them a raspberry and folded their tents – is something that is​ about purity. That is, indeed, theological in character.  

Corporations, ‘big business’, or even, swept up as one, capitalism (or ‘late capitalism’ if you’re trying to impress girls) have become, for those of a leftish disposition and cursory habit of thought, the sin-eaters of our age. They fantasise that we can purify ourselves as ethical individuals by ascribing all the evils of the world to these abstract, faceless things and making a show of fighting it. 

But corporations, businesses, and capitalism are no more than collections of people, and they serve human needs with human instruments: it is futile to imagine that the unworthy desires and ethical compromises and articles of shame that entangle the behaviours of big business are anything other than our own. You can’t separate ‘the system’ from us, because we are ​the system. De te, fabula.  

And, what’s more, so is the good that they and we do. Even that is compromised, complex and entangled. An even moderately sophisticated account of the world recognises, for instance, that the people and companies who are going to transition the planet to clean energy will, many of them, be the same people who gave us the dirty kind; that it’ll take time, trade-offs and, yes, investment, to manage the transition.   

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad allows the reader to realise that the ship rocking at anchor in the lower reaches of Thames aboard which Marlow tells his story is connected by a single body of water to the mad domain of Mister Kurtz from which the supposedly civilised West draws its wealth; that the grass that grows beneath the whited flagstones of the Bourse is cousin to the grass that pushes between the ribs of skeletons in the Congo. We are all complicit: this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.  

It isn’t so comfortable to acknowledge your own inescapable complicity in the bad things that happen in the world. But acknowledging it – and recognising that you can’t just palm it off on a sin-eater and consider yourself shriven – is a prerequisite to making those bad things better. The metaphors of religion have useful things to tell us about that, too. These are just the sorts of ideas, it occurs to me, that we could usefully talk about at literary festivals. Shame, eh?

Watch Sam Leith debate the Hay Festival boycott with Alex Massie on Spectator TV: