Statement on the Fossil Free Books campaign against the Hay Festival

As a writer and campaigner who has spent 25 years working on climate change, there is something I feel I need to say about the fossil fuels divestment campaign targeting Hay and other literary festivals. I’m saying it – after speaking to lots of writers and festival staff who shall remain nameless – because it seems like no-one else can. It would be much easier for me to keep quiet and say nothing too. But that’s precisely the problem.

Some background for those who have missed the controversy. A climate divestment activist group called Fossil Free Books has asked writers and artists at literary festivals, starting with Hay, to de-platform themselves in protest at these festivals’ sponsorship by Baillie Gifford, an investment management company with a very small proportion of investments (around 2% according to them) in fossil fuels-related assets.

It’s a clever campaign because it immediately puts writers and other performers scheduled to appear at Hay in a dilemma. If they sign the statement as demanded and withdraw from the festival they lose the chance to present their work to an engaged audience at a festival with a high profile and a proud history as the world’s premier books event.

If they don’t sign, and go ahead with their event regardless, they risk looking like they don’t care about climate change and don’t support the brave activists who are trying to de-legitimise fossil fuels. Hay’s a pretty liberal-lefty event, so no-one wants to be seen to refuse to take a moral stance when it is demanded that they do so in public.

Moreover, to keep the pressure on, the activists also threatened “escalation” (yes they used that word), meaning disruption of events, with speakers potentially faced with being shouted down by campaigners wielding banners. I’ve had this happen to me and it isn’t fun. So lots of writers withdrew, and last night the festival capitulated and said it would no longer be asking for sponsorship from Baillie Gifford.

Is this a success for the campaign to stop the escalating climate emergency? Not in my book. Hay was targeted not because they are a bad actor, but because they are an good one. When Charlotte Church accused the festival of “rank hypocrisy” because of the Baillie Gifford sponsorship, she was simply echoing the favourite refrain of the right-wing media, who love to shout ‘hypocrisy’ at anyone who is making an effort, from Greta Thunberg to Coldplay.

Hay has done a huge amount to reduce its own carbon footprint, and to encourage its attendees to do likewise. But because they’re not perfect, they can be called hypocrites. It’s a nasty and self-defeating charge, because the only way to avoid it is to do nothing and say nothing on climate. It’s a disempowering tactic which merely encourages fatalism and plays into the culture wars narrative of the political right.

Let’s face it, we’re all hypocrites. Everyone who lives in the modern world is complicit in the continuing use of fossil fuels. I expect the activists from Fossil Free Books probably use the odd petrol station themselves. No doubt most have also been on an aircraft. That’s fine – I’m not calling anyone a hypocrite. We have to decarbonise the entire energy system here – it’s going to take decades, lots of technology and even more money, and in the meantime we’re all going to stay fossil fuels-consuming hypocrites for a little longer.

More broadly, we need to stop attacking our allies. Hay was chosen as a soft target, in a campaign primarily relying on peer pressure and public moral intimidation, because the activists knew the festival management would have to give in, and so this was a campaign that could be won. But who really wins here? Not a dime has been divested from fossil fuels. Not a gram of CO2 has been reduced.

All that’s happened is that literary festivals now have huge holes in their budgets which will mean they have to raise ticket prices (excluding those on lower incomes) or maybe go out of business. Who would risk sponsoring now, given what has happened? You sponsor a cultural event because you want good publicity, not public shaming in the Guardian.

As a writer, I support literary festivals on principle, and it is heartbreaking to see Hay pilloried by people who say they care about climate change. Hay is not the problem, and indeed has made huge efforts to be part of the solution. To target them because they have done so much, and accuse them of hypocrisy, is not attacking injustice – it is in itself an injustice, one that lots of fine writers and artists have now been made complicit in.

We need climate activism to continue to push for political change, and I stand with those who are devoting their time and effort to tackling the climate emergency in so many different ways. But campaigns should target enemies, not friends. They should right wrongs, not commit new ones. They should pick hard targets, not soft targets. They should not bully and intimidate. They should seek to generate empathy and solidarity rather than division and bitterness. This is a sad day for Hay and a sad day for climate activism. I hope we can learn from it.