Why We Mustn’t Give In To Baillie Gifford’s Culture Wars

By Sandy Winterbottom, Parents For Future Scotland

Baillie Gifford’s PR team must be rubbing their hands with glee after pulling-off a nifty exit from the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) without having to answer a single serious question. Campaigners who speak up for climate justice and human rights have been thrown under the bus while Baillie Gifford are free to slink away and greenwash themselves by sponsoring events where difficult questions will not be asked. 

The very worst of the hate-spew directed at ‘activists’ in the aftermath was Susan Dalgety’s opinion piece in the Scotsman. It was nothing more than a cynical attempt to further the ends of the anti-trans brigade whilst branding climate campaigners as ‘spoilt brats’. Dalgety is at the extreme end of the vilification of climate justice and human-rights campaigners, but the sentiment was largely universal. The loss of EIBF sponsorship was laid squarely at the feet of protestors. Remember though, Baillie Gifford’s slick PR team have had almost a year to plan this stunt and in that time have avoided making even a token effort to divest from companies involved in fossil fuel projects condemned for human rights abuses in East Africa, the Niger Delta and the Amazon. A little would have gone a long way, but clearly divestment was never part of a plan that likely swung into action as soon as The Ferret exposed Baillie Gifford’s fossil-fuel links

The singularly most sinister aspect of this whole fiasco is Baillie Gifford’s press-release which cites safety concerns, coercion and the threat of disruption from activists as their principle reason for backing out. More menacing rumours spread word-of-mouth. And it was all rumour. There has not been a single documented incidence of these threats.

Several weeks ago, dozens of divestment campaigners disrupted the Barclays AGM at SEC Armadillo in Glasgow. The most dangerous thing that happened was when people stood up on auditorium’s tippy-up chairs to interrupt the meeting. Barclays has long been a prime target, financing fossil fuel companies to the tune of $235 billion since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. Barclays are also estimated to hold around £2 billion in shares and provide £6.1 billion in financial services to companies supplying Israel with weapons. And yet, even this protest was peaceful and respectful. Many of Barclays’ Glasgow HQ staff are on friendly terms with campaigners; they’re not best pleased with their employers either. 

Divestment campaigners use well-targeted and smart tactics directed at the right people. They are simply not interested in shouting at writers or book festival organisers. Baillie Gifford’s fossil fuel investments are small change compared to most of the banks on our high streets. Last year’s disruption at the EIBF involved no more than a handful of protestors who stood outside the venue with a megaphone for a couple of hours. This year, writers appearing at the festival were politely asked by Fossil Free Books if they might consider withdrawing, making a statement or taking a peaceful creative action. Those that declined were left alone. 

Book festivals are vital for giving voice to writers from many marginalised communities, including those from war zones. But if funding for cultural events has to rely on the benevolence of people that refuse to be held to account, then that’s not an ‘activist’ problem. 

As global temperatures soar, we will need to be wary of falling into culture-war traps and not lose sight of the humanitarian crisis unfolding as our climate breaks down. Recent heatwaves sweeping through India have hit 50 degrees Centigrade – hotter than the inside of a car with the windows closed on a hot summer’s day. You wouldn’t allow a dog to suffer those temperatures and yet now, the number of people exposed to this extreme heat is growing exponentially in all world regions, and the poorest and most vulnerable are always the first to suffer.

Vilifying protestors and fear-mongering to drive division is a dirty tactic, but we are in a dirty war. We can expect that the transition to a sustainable and fair energy economy will be fiercely contested by those still making vast profits from a dying industry. Fossil fuels are in serious danger of becoming stranded assets and there are too many people heavily invested in stopping that from happening. Climate and human rights campaigners are not the enemy, but fear is, and as long as we are all shouting at each other, those profiting from climate catastrophe get to walk away untarnished and unchallenged. 

Comments (12)

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  1. Ken Hare says:

    I am delighted that BG no longer sponsor the book festival; all power to the protestors.
    Thank you for publishing this article.
    I missed Susan Dalgety’s piece having finally decided that reading the Hootsmon was bad for my mental health; I’m not surprised at her comments

  2. Alan Caldwell says:

    Hi Sandy. Would be interested in your take on this by the environmental campaigner Mark Lynas https://marklynas.org/2024/05/25/statement-on-the-fossil-free-books-campaign-against-the-hay-festival/.

    1. Niemand says:

      Thanks you for posting this. I have seen other authors and interested parties expressing similar concerns about this and they need to be taken seriously. I do not think we are getting the full picture. I read the Dalgety piece after reading this article and found the accusation it was ‘nothing more than a cynical attempt to further the ends of the anti-trans brigade’ to be nonsense. Poet Jenny Lindsay who is mentioned by Dalgety, has every right to be aggrieved given her totally unjust treatment over recent years.

      I find it a bit rich that this article talks about culture wars as if this were something ‘the other side’ is guilty of alone when in fact, whatever you think of its merits, this particular culture war was wholeheartedly waged by Fossil Free Books and endorsed by the author herself.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, I went to the Fossil Free Books site and they talk about a just transition, translators and transport, but I couldn’t find anything on trans activism. I mean, I guess Bella policy is to give latitude to contributors to shoehorn their own interests into a piece about apparently progressive environmental issues, but the least I expect is to require authors to spell out or link to what those interests/demands are. As I’m reading philosopher Susan Neiman’s book, I get the distinct impression that ‘trans rights’ are used in the same dog-whistle way that Confederacy diehards use ‘State’s rights’, an innocuous phrase which means different things to general population than a core interest group.

        1. Niemand says:

          I find that shoe-horning egregious as we won’t get the opposite view shoe-horned anywhere.

          What is interesting is that the Dalgety article (which certainly has its flaws and biases) makes the broader point about very loud, dogmatic and moralistic activists make any stance that challenges their viewpoint, a cause not for just disagreement but vilification. The article Alan links above makes the strong point that the Gifford affair is putting authors between a rock and hard place, in an impossible position, and to what end and with what real justification? It feels like a righteous cause (deep concern about climate change) that here, manifests as tokenistic, mired in double-standards, and will achieve little material and possibly a lot of pointless negativity, even suffering for writers trying to earn a crust. That is my impression. But we won’t get any considered piece like the one Alan links to that makes the point how much Hay Festival actually does to be carbon neutral that it s totally lost in the ‘debate’ that isn’t a debate, to help get a deeper understanding.

          1. Niemand the 800 signatories (including me) were not cajoled into anything.

            Onwards for the debate that isn’t a debate apparently, yet here you are, debating.

          2. Niemand says:

            I am indeed debating.

            But the debate always happens below the line, not above.

            Maybe that is just the way things are – Bella decides on a position, pushes it and people react one way or another. This can lead to a reactive sort of mode though.

            As for the signatures, I am sure people signed freely enough. and 800 is an impressive number. It is those like the author in the linked article above that we are not hearing much from though. I don’t have a firmly decided view on this matter which is why I am interested in hearing different sides. It is not a simple or easy debate I don’t think, or less simple than seems to be being suggested.

          3. We’ll be unpacking it in the future days without belabouring the point. There are complexities at play here for sure and sides of the argument that haven’t been heard yet.

  3. Satan says:

    All these people have achieved is divestment in book festivals. Hardly anyone is interested in book festivals. I presume Sandy’s aim is to wipe book festivals off the face of the Earth.

    1. ‘Hardly anyone is interested in Book Festivals’ – brilliant!

      1. Niemand says:

        Having been to Wigtown, Hay and Edinburgh I found quite a bit of interest there, from all over the world, day after day, year after year, whole town economies sustained by them and the book trade outside of festival time.

        So yeah, ‘lol’ indeed.

        1. Yes there’s a burgeoning publishing scene, revived literary interest and lots of money in books. Book Festivals are popular, no doubt. I think this is in response to a) some great writers b) moral and social complexity and trauma c) a sort of moron popular culture. But there are real issues about who these festival are for and what function they serve, regardless of their sponsors.

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