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Losing the plot: creating heroes and villains in a complex world

Book festival

David Gaffney Charlotte Street Partners


Senior partner


Losing the plot: creating heroes and villains in a complex world

The best authors devote countless hours to conducting research on every aspect of their work. So I was surprised to hear that more than 50 writers and participants in this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival had threatened to boycott the event in future unless Baillie Gifford is replaced as the main sponsor.

It strikes me that in lending their names to this ultimatum, some of the world’s foremost authors failed to carry out much, if any, research on the investment firm that is the target of their outrage.

Their beef is that Baillie Gifford has investments worth £5bn in companies linked to the fossil fuel industry. On the face of it, their action seems reasonable; a group of influential writers taking a leadership position on an issue of global significance, addressing the climate emergency by socking it to one of the corporate villains fuelling our flight to oblivion.

Narratives are rarely that simple, however, in real life or fiction. Five billion is a huge sum, but Baillie Gifford manages more than £223bn in total, so it represents just two per cent of its clients’ money. Its peers in the fund management sector invest, on average, 11% of their total assets in companies linked to fossil fuel activities.

More than five per cent of Baillie Gifford’s total investments, meanwhile, are in businesses whose sole purpose is to develop clean energy solutions. It was an early – and committed – backer of Tesla, Northvolt and other companies at the forefront of the transition to net zero. As a firm that seeks to achieve long-term growth for investors, going all-out for fossil fuels wouldn’t make much sense commercially, never mind reputationally.

The authors’ letter claims that “the only meaningful change is divestment.” But to whom would they have Baillie Gifford sell its shares? Less scrupulous investors will be happy to buy those shares, so what would that achieve? Baillie Gifford’s presence on the shareholder register is more likely to ensure executive teams and boards are held to account on their sustainability commitments.

It is possible to be both frustrated with the pace of the transition to net zero, and cognisant of the need for fossil fuels while we find and scale-up credible alternatives. We live in an imperfect world, full of contradictions. Guarding against greenwashing is a legitimate pursuit, but there must be room for nuance and realism in the debate. Come to think of it, an actual debate would be good – you know, the kind of thing that typically happens at book festivals – and more illuminating than cancellations and performative walk-outs.

Alistair Moffat, director of the Borders Book Festival, said: “What these protesters are doing is imperilling the very existence of book festivals, and so imperilling the possibility of debate. There are strong arguments on both sides, but let’s have the arguments.”

Baillie Gifford has done more than most companies to foster forums for such debates through its patronage of the arts, including sponsoring a prominent prize for non-fiction, won two years ago by Patrick Radden Keefe, whose book Empire of Pain exposed the Sackler dynasty’s use of culture to whitewash its reputation, among other misdeeds.

We stand to learn so much from authors like Keefe, but like it or not their ability to tell us those stories is often dependent, at least in part, on the philanthropic endeavours of corporate sponsors. We should all take time to understand their motivations and their business models before we opine on their suitability for that role.


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