May 31, 2024 - 3:30pm

An intolerant movement has found a new target: literary festivals. Last night, in a development that should worry everyone who values open debate, the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) followed the example of the Hay Festival by suspending links with one of its sponsors, the investment company Baillie Gifford.

Both festivals have been hit by authors withdrawing and fears of disruption, prompted by a little-known group calling themselves “Fossil Free Books”. In recent weeks, they sent an email to writers, calling on them to protest about Hay’s sponsorship deal with Baillie Gifford or withdraw from appearing. The activists accuse the company of investing in the petrochemical industry and criticise its links with companies that operate in Israel.

In reality, Baillie Gifford’s investment in fossil fuels is 2%, well below the industry average, while their involvement in Israel consists of investing in companies such as Amazon and Airbnb, which millions of consumers use without qualm everyday. Predictably, the flight from Hay was led not by authors, but the singer Charlotte Church, the Labour MP Dawn Butler and the Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti. But around 600 authors signed an open letter, leading to events being cancelled and tickets having to be refunded. In Edinburgh, similar pressure was being exerted.

The EIBF board issued a statement describing what it faced as “a campaign of coercion”. Its chief executive, Jenny Niven, said the decision had been taken because “the pressure on our team has simply become intolerable”. Its chair, the veteran journalist Allan Little, said bluntly that the organisers “cannot be expected to deliver a safe and sustainable festival this August under the constant threat of disruption from activists”.

Fossil Free Books claim they were simply trying to put pressure on Baillie Gifford, but their rhetoric is both inflammatory and familiar. They accuse the company of profiting from “Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide”, slogans that have created an intimidating atmosphere for Jews in this country. The campaign will have no effect whatsoever on the conflict in the Middle East or on global warming but it will hit authors, many of whom are struggling to survive.

Festivals are vital to the literary economy. According to a recent survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), median earnings from writing are now £7,000 a year. To their credit, Hay and Edinburgh pay writers to talk about their work, unlike some smaller festivals. If their sponsorship deals collapse — and Baillie Gifford will only be the first target — it is poorly paid authors who will suffer.

In an over-heated atmosphere, where prominent people live in terror of saying or doing the wrong thing, activists have enormous influence. During the Labour leadership campaign in 2020, a previously unknown organisation calling itself the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights demanded that the candidates sign a series of pledges, including one to expel “transphobic” members of the party. Most did, including Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and current deputy leader, Angela Rayner.

The speed with which well-known people give in to the demands of self-appointed moral arbiters is astonishing. Some appear to have lost any capacity for critical thinking, responding like Pavlov’s dogs to a series of cues: trans rights, fossil fuels, Israel. Writers, of all people, should know better. This is not moral clarity, but its exact opposite.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She was previously Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. Her book Unfortunately, She Was A Nymphomaniac: A New History of Rome’s Imperial Women will be published in November 2024.