Book festivals don’t get to opt out of climate change

by | 3 Jun 2024

I am very sympathetic to the plight of the arts which need every penny they can get, but a change in our attitude to oil industry sponsorship has to start somewhere.

For an atheist I’ve read a surprising amount of theology in my time. St Augustine was always my favourite – it’s not just the backstory, it’s the great quote “Lord make me pure, but not yet”. That is a wonderful way to conceptualise the way we tell ourselves that we want to do the right thing but not at the expense of our immediate self interest.

It was that wonderful quote that I thought of when I read the open letter from various high-profile writers (some are friends) decrying the end of a sponsorship deal between the Edinburgh Book Festival and the private investment company Baillie Gifford.

Let me get a few things out of the way here. First, of all the corporate targets one might want to list for priority boycotts, Baillie Gifford isn’t high on the list. As these things go it is frankly probably better than most in the realms of ethical investment approaches in mainstream investment funds. It has certainly used profits to support valuable events like the Book Festival and the Hay Festival.

Second, the arts are on their arse in Scotland, funding is desperately tight just now and the last thing anyone needs is for more money to be diverted away from supporting and showcasing artists. My sympathy with the plight of artists is enormous.

Third, I am not of a puritan bent when it comes to money. The world is full of dirty money and if some of it can be redirected and put to good use somehow, I’m OK with that. So long as it doesn’t buy the source of the dirty money unreasonable positive PR, doesn’t have any hint of quid pro quo and isn’t blatantly symbolically abhorrent, using that money for good is better than the alternative.

Fourth, arts festivals aren’t exactly the world’s worst climate or social justice offenders. If you want talks on social affairs interspersed with some vegan food, they’re a good bet. They are most certainly not at the sharp end of making the world a worse place.

And yet, and yet…

As you’ll imagine, I’ve heard these arguments more than once before. In fact, I can remember very clearly the first time I heard it. It was in he 1980s and it was down to the fact that a couple of Scotland rugby players had broken the boycott and played in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s.

The clichés flowed – sport is a great way to engage with different political cultures and help them to see the light, politics should be kept out of sport, this does us as much harm as them, it’s down to everyone’s choice and your values shouldn’t be imposed on others and so on.

Now look back. I’m sure you can see just how utterly essential to the ending of apartheid it was that South Africa was isolated on the world stage and was absolutely not allowed to launder its reputation and promote its country globally by playing gentlemanly games while excluding players based on the colour of their skin.

As an artist, as a sportsperson, you have absolutely disproportionate impact of the public consciousness and public imagination, so you have an equally disproportionate responsibility to recognise and reflect on the effects of what you’re doing

Sure direct UK government action would have been better. Sure there are other boycotts which were equally important (I remember so much of my youth with parents checking the labels on food to make sure we didn’t inadvertently support apartheid). Sure it was symbolic. But it was utterly crucial and don’t kid yourselves on any different.

This is the point; neither sports nor the arts are anything like society’s biggest problem when it comes to either climate change or the Isreal/Palestine debate, but they really are crucially symbolic. Look at the sheer effort expended to make sure that Isreal was allowed to wash its hands of its crimes by singing a wee song and doing a wee dance for Eurovision.

For hundreds of years (if not thousands), when corrupt rulers want to launder their reputations they have used sport and the arts. The best example from history is surely the ‘Hitler Games’ when Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936.

The flip side of this is simple; as an artist, as a sportsperson, you have absolutely disproportionate impact of the public consciousness and public imagination, so you have an equally disproportionate responsibility to recognise and reflect on the effects of what you’re doing.

So we can all get together and whine about how it’s not fair that artists are being targetted when oil executives get away with it. Except oil executives don’t generally get (for example) long, personal interviews in national newspapers with the time and space to expand on a wide range of subjects which may well stretch beyond the art of writing or music theory. No-one asks a defence contractor about the soul of the nation or the future of humanity.

No, you’re not the problem – until you have a platform and you don’t use it. Then you’re at least some kind of a small part of the problem. So if you’re turning up at an event sponsored by bad people, you’re laundering their reputation. Let me be really clear about this; Olly Alexander didn’t sing his way to peace in the middle east through ‘the unifying power of music’ as he promised, he handed Isreal a decisive PR victory and went home to count his cash.

But that is not the only reason why the arts are so important in signalling the time for change and the time to set new standards of moral acceptability. For one, its audiences tend to be in that territory already. It is mostly a fairly educated and liberal set who go to book festivals so there is ripe territory for making a stand that brings audiences with you. It is just easier to do, so again the responsibility gets bigger.

For another, mostly artists present themselves as ‘the good guys’, the change-bringers, the explorers of the soul and the those casting light on our society. There is a need for them to recognise the hypocrisy in writing sensitive poems about a dying planet and then sign a letter saying ‘but obviously we need oil money so back off’.

I’m not sure that Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the Edinburgh Book Festival is the target I personally would have chosen to go after, but enough committed writers and artists chose to make that the choice

Still, none of this is the main point. The fundamental reason why its so often the case and so important that the arts is the place where these processes begin precisely because, for all the above reasons, the arts are most susceptible to pressure.

Put really simply, it is much easier to bring pressure to bear on a book festival to sever symbolic ties than it is to do the same with a golf tournament, and it is easier to bring that pressure to bear on a golf tournament than it is for a corporate-owned newspaper, and yet it’s still easier to bring that pressure onto a newspaper than it is to a business summit.

That’s how the world works; you start somewhere and you start where it’s most possible. That lets you create the conditions for making it less acceptable for your next target, then success there makes it easier to change the behaviour of your next target, and so on.

That is how social change happens. It doesn’t happen by always starting at the top with the most untouchable, unreachable villains but with something that happens in your house, your town, your street. We can all tell ourselves that we’re the exception to a need to be better, we can always find someone who is worse than us and point at them and say ‘but…’.

Yet still our participation fuels the problem. You begin where you can and you take the next step or you get nowhere. Make no mistake about it, the planet is dying now and the best time to do something about it has already passed.

So, all you writers and creatives, you think you are exempt from the need to change society? You think that sticking in a sentence about how you don’t like climate change or wish we could all just get along with each other makes up for sending out the message that it is wrong to target oil interests as part of corporate sponsorship packages if it’s inconvenient for you?

Some of you have been too close to government in Scotland and have done surprisingly little to hold them to account for the incessant cuts in arts funding. You seem to be putting more effort into attacking climate change campaigners and sending them the same old lectures about how you’re trying to achieve the same thing they want by writing a murder mystery novel.

I’m not sure that Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the Edinburgh Book Festival is the target I personally would have chosen to go after, but enough committed writers and artists chose to make that the choice. So it is now a binary choice.

Do not pretend that there is a neutral response to that binary choice. You ask the world to be pure, but you are seeking at least a temporary exemption for yourselves. Regular readers know how deeply committed to the arts I am, but choices matter and so does symbolism.

Is accepting anyone’s money really the only option you have? Is that our collective choice – let companies launder their reputation through the arts or have no arts? You’re writers, couldn’t you have thought of another way to address this? Perhaps ‘we will all spend the next year seeking out an alternative but give us one more year’, or something like that? It can’t be enough to say that literature is so important it is immune from the issues of who pays for it.

There needs to be a better response to this question because for an awful lot of us ‘we offer the opportunity to get together and talk about a better world is’ is no longer enough.  We need to decide how we are going to face this enormous, existential issue – and yet while we are busy deciding, runaway climate change may be upon us and there may be little left of Gaza to save.

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