Toxic tactic of protest threatens the future of Edinburgh’s book festival - Susan Dalgety

Jenny Niven, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, had wanted to retain Baillie Gifford as a sponsor (Picture: Ian Georgeson)Jenny Niven, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, had wanted to retain Baillie Gifford as a sponsor (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Jenny Niven, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, had wanted to retain Baillie Gifford as a sponsor (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
​I came to book writing late in my career. My first, the Spirit of Malawi, was only published by Edinburgh’s Luath Press in 2021. ​My second, which I co-edited with Lucy Hunter Blackburn, came out only a few days ago, and is already selling fast.

Not because of my brilliance I hasten to add, but because The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht is a collection of powerful, often moving, essays by women chronicling their campaign over recent years to safeguard women’s rights

It is the stories written by JK Rowling, Joanna Cherry and other wonderful women that people want to read, even if Lucy and my names are on the front cover.

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While we were gathering material for the book, we used to daydream about appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

We knew it would never happen. We are not part of the literary establishment like crime writer Val McDermid, who is down to make five appearances at this year’s event.

And our subject matter – women’s rights – has proved controversial. Some, including many influential people who should know better, think women right’s campaigners are against people who identify as transgender. The truth is women are simply trying to protect their rights, such as safe single-sex spaces.

And even though the book is already one of the best-selling Scottish political books since devolution, we hold out no prospect of even a last-minute invite to this year’s festival.

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Our mere presence on the Edinburgh University campus – the new location for the book festival – might attract protests from trans activists, just as the screening of the film Adult Human Female did last year.

It took three attempts, and a large police presence, for the film finally to be shown last November.

It is that same toxic tactic of using protest to shut down debate that now risks the very future of Edinburgh’s renowned book festival.

The festival has dropped its main sponsor, Edinburgh Baillie Gifford, after campaigners threatened to disrupt this year’s programme because of the investment firm’s links to fossil fuels.

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As someone who has marched for jobs not bombs, against apartheid, in support of gay rights, and even joined a protest in Berlin just after the wall came down, I fully endorse protest as a legitimate form of political action, up to a point.

The people who have blackmailed the book festival into severing their long-standing relationship with Baillie Gifford are as undemocratic as the activists who tried to stop women from watching a film about women.

Their actions are not those of legitimate protestors, but of bullies. They don’t believe in free speech – only their right to expression matters. And they seem content to force their opinions on others, even if it risks the closure of an important book festival and the loss of 40 jobs.

Of course we need to find ways to all live together and to protect our fragile planet, but we won’t do that by closing down the very places where ideas are shared, like book festivals.

And a personal message to Jenny Niven, the festival’s beleaguered chief. If you do happen to have any last minute slots, Lucy and I would be very happy to volunteer.