Respect for free speech needed after book festival loses sponsor – Swinney

John Swinney has said dialogue and respect for free speech are important after the Edinburgh International Book Festival ended its 20-year sponsorship with Baillie Gifford.

However, the First Minister stressed the Scottish Government could not be expected to fund every cultural event amid a tight budget.

The festival’s organisers said they had come under “intolerable” pressure from climate campaigners, who criticised Baillie Gifford’s investments in fossil fuels.

More than 50 authors and and event chairs taking part in last year’s festival signed an open letter demanding organisers find alternative sponsors if the investment management firm did not divest billions.

But last week another group of writers said the campaign against the festival was “deeply retrograde” and signed an open letter saying they are concerned about its future.

Mr Swinney was asked about the developments during an election campaign stop in Stirling.

He told the PA news agency a “significant difficulty” had been created for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and similar events.

He said: “What I would encourage is dialogue between all the various interested parties.

“I would encourage a respect for the process of engagement and respect for free speech, so that we find a way through all of these issues which enable people to make their arguments, but also enables us to have important events such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival effectively supported.”

Asked if the Scottish Government could help with the book festival’s funding, Mr Swinney said there are “enormous pressures on the public finances”.

He said: “We have to recognise that the public purse cannot stretch to meet every requirement that is put in front of it.”

The First Minister said he valued the cultural sector and the Government would do as much as it can to support events such as the book festival.

Last week, Jenny Niven, chief executive of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said the event’s future is at risk because of the lack of a principal sponsor.

She said: “Undermining the long-term future of charitable organisations such as book festivals is not the right way to bring about change.

“It diminishes the voices of those who feel strongly about these complex issues and it will be infinitely harder to build and sustain well-funded cultural institutions in the future than it is to put them out of business today.”

Nick Thomas, a partner with Baillie Gifford, said previously that the firm is stepping back “with the hope that the festival will thrive this year and into the future”.

He said: “We hold the activists squarely responsible for the inhibiting effect their action will have on funding for the arts in this country.

“Baillie Gifford is a long-term investor with high ethical standards and a complete focus on doing what is right by our clients.”

He added: “Only 2% of our clients’ money is invested in companies with some business related to fossil fuels.”