Books

'Future is as shaky as its ever been': Will Baillie Gifford funding row kill our book festivals?

The future of British book festivals is as shaky as its ever been. Let’s hope peace between warring factions can be achieved in time to save your favourite fest

Edinburgh International Book Festival. Image: Roberto Ricciuti/edbookfest.co.uk

Book festivals have a flattering reputation for camaraderie and intellectual exchange. Those of us who annually attend major festivals like Edinburgh or Hay look forward to losing ourselves in the heady buzz created by hundreds of book lovers hoping to score a friendly spat over Rushdie vs McEwan, or Mantel vs Erpenbeck. 

Conversations are fiery – readers are usually passionate and informed people – but the atmosphere is rarely too spiky to rule out another convivial glass of red. This year, though, the mood has changed. International geopolitics has entered with a controversy so combustible it threatens the continued existence of many festivals.

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Several weeks ago a number of writers, including singer Charlotte Church and comedian Nish Kumar, pulled out of the Hay Festival citing links its main sponsor Baillie Gifford has to Israel and fossil fuel companies. The investment management group looks after £225 billion of global funds.

British Pakistani writer Noreen Masud, who also pulled out, said she was shocked that Baillie Gifford “invests more than £10bn in companies complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine”. After two days of the furore, Hay organisers announced a suspension of the sponsorship.

A few days later the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which takes place every August, announced the end of its 20-year partnership with Baillie Gifford for the same reason. And just last week the popular Borders Book festival followed suit, with a regretful statement that said “Without the support of Baillie Gifford we would not have been able to mount such a vibrant and varied children’s festival.”

The company have since removed their backing for the Cheltenham Book Festival. Their support for literature events across Britain, and the crisis pulling that support will bring, is clear.

The regretful nature of Borders’ statement echoes the tone of Hay’s and Edinburgh’s; both stressed that the relationship has been a significant factor in their survival. Edinburgh’s festival director, Jenny Niven, said she was sorry to part ways with Baillie Gifford and had only done so due to “intolerable” pressure.

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For its part, Baillie Gifford stressed that only 2% of client money is invested in fossil fuels, at clients’ requests. It also adds: “The assertion that we have significant amounts of money in the occupied Palestinian territories is offensively misleading.”

The company continues to sponsor a number of book festivals including Cambridge and Wigtown, but this is dwindling and there is understandable concern that more splits may follow in the next few weeks. There is also anxiety about sponsorship in the arts in general, if every sponsor is to be investigated and, if found politically wanting, highlighted in the press and social media as an enemy.

So this year, when you pull up a chair in the sun to share your theory about Richard Osman’s popularity, treasure every moment. The future of British book festivals is as shaky as its ever been. Let’s hope peace between warring factions can be achieved in time to save your favourite fest. In the meantime, here is a list of book festivals for you to book into. Funding permitting.

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