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7 June 2024

The anti-Baillie Gifford mob wants to police art. Writers must not give in

In cutting ties with the firm, literary festivals have fallen prey to the worst sort of playground bully.

By Howard Jacobson

First the lunatics took over the asylum, now the children have taken over the playground.

After the campus glamping and the race to see who knows least about Middle East politics – the Americans are still winning but Oxford’s coming up fast on the outside – we move on to the summer game of holier-than-thou in which celebrities with clout join activists with heart-on-sleeve consciences in pressuring the country’s leading literary festivals to shoot themselves in the foot. When the music stops thou shalt junk thy long-time sponsor Baillie Gifford or we will have such revenges on you that all the world shall…

Since Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival dropped the asset-management company as their sponsors, several other partnerships – including with Cheltenham and Cambridge literary festivals – have ended. Ask what Baillie Gifford has done apart from cough up money from which all writers benefit and you enter the political equivalent of “I know this guy who knows this guy who knows this guy who knows this guy…” It has “links”, in other words, and a link when you are playing holier-than-thou can be as tenuous as you like providing a bit of it dislodges in Israel. Oil, too, but the oil argument against Baillie Gifford has been a long time brewing. It’s the link that ends up in Israel that wins the game for whoever finds it.

I mustn’t fall into the sandpit of juvenile outrage myself and tell literary festivals that they wouldn’t have been susceptible to high-flier blackmail if they hadn’t invited non-writing celebs to celebrations of writing in the first place. One shouldn’t fight naivety with naivety. It’s a depressing fact of our times that in order for festivals of the arts to succeed, they need the fame of non-artists to balance the books. So if that means Gary Lineker and Charlotte Church, you hold your nose and book them. That’s the world of grown-ups, folks.

If you don’t give me what I want and get rid of your sponsor, the comedian Nish Kumar told the Hay Festival, I won’t be coming to your party after all. Which isn’t at all grown-up unless we think that moral blackmail and bullying are things grown-ups practise as a matter of course.

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But it hasn’t all been semi-celebs flexing their muscles. Fossil Free Books, a collective of “book workers” with trite views on the world, has also come up with the idea of scaring writers away from festivals which don’t do their bidding by making a sort of daisy chain of inexplicably inextricable links – eg, “solidarity with Palestine and climate justice” – that no writer who hopes to find or keep a readership dare break, if only because “solidarity” is one of those come-ons that grab our consciences even when the conflation means little more than “here are a few of my least favourite things”.

The extent of the blackmail exerted on festivals, and on writers wondering whether or not to capitulate to it themselves, is hard to gauge. Dark rumours tell of threats and warnings of “escalation” – the disruption of uncooperative writers’ sessions by pro-Palestinian campaigners chanting and waving banners, for example – but we aren’t in the rumour business. Few, at either end of the bullying – and there can be no denying the bullying – want to say anything that will end in their being yoked into an unflattering conflation with, say, genocidal Zionists. It’s tough enough in these censorious times to write a book, get it past the sensitivity police, find someone to publish it, and then go out into the world to talk about it, without having to submit your solidarity credentials too.

We must have a heart. Of course it’s altogether easier, if you’ve finally been invited to talk about your book at Hay, to flutter a white handkerchief and do as you are told. Young writers should not have been subjected to this.

I don’t accuse them of cowardice or cynicism. A burning world and dying children are a trouble to all our consciences. Our consciences, however, are private property. It’s not the job of anyone else to tell us how and where we must employ them. Of all bullies in the intellectual world, the most odious are those who claim that they alone feel humanity’s pain. How dangerous the fossil-free narcissists will turn out to be, we can only guess. So far, it’s just a nursery putsch starring Mickey Mouse and Minnie. But they follow in the footsteps of tyrants. First the boycotts, then the discrediting of opponents, then the purges.

That all this should be happening at festivals of words and thoughts is cruelly ironical. If there is to be no independent thinking here, where else will we find it? The Times columnist James Marriott is one of those who has been brave enough to nail his colours to the mast of art and sail into the storm. “We must remember,” he writes, “that some things are more important than politics… Sometimes a week of conversation, debate and poetry in the summer sunshine is a virtue in itself.”

A virtue and a necessity. Art eludes the mind of an activist. The best art doesn’t have an agenda, the activist has nothing else. Art finds the language it needs in the course of expressing itself. It is exploratory, self-contradictory, provisional. The minute art makes up its mind, it’s no longer art. Is this why the no-fossil-fuellers have chosen the terrain of art to begin their campaign of toytown terror? If there is one thing they fear it’s the creative imagination that goes its own way. Enough now. Let them have the first round. But no writer, artist, thinker, should give another inch. Capitulate further and you will have lost the right, in your own eyes not least, to call yourself an artist.

Howard Jacobson’s most recent novel, “What Will Survive of Us”, is published by Jonathan Cape

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency