Musicians and artists boycott UK cultural events over Israel ties

<span>The Great Escape festival was quieter than expected after keynote speakers and headliners refused to show up.</span><span>Photograph: Emma Swann/Alamy</span>
The Great Escape festival was quieter than expected after keynote speakers and headliners refused to show up.Photograph: Emma Swann/Alamy

Every May in Brighton, the UK’s music industry descends on the seaside town for the Great Escape, the “showcase” event that has helped to launch the careers of everyone from Stormzy and AlunaGeorge to Fat White Family and Anna Calvi.

Crowds pile in to dozens of venues, as punters and A&R spotters try to get a glimpse of acts who may have the unique spark needed to become break-out stars, but at this year’s event something was missing: more than a third of the bill.

Keynote speakers did not appear. Headliners refused to show up. Entire showcases were scrapped, as tensions caused by the Israel-Hamas conflict reached the south coast of England.

Many acts pulled out because of a pro-Palestinian boycott aimed at the event’s sponsorship by Barclays Bank, which campaigners claim has increased its investment in arms companies that trade with Israel.

Bands Boycott Barclays (BBB), the group behind the campaign, said the bank was “laundering its reputation” by partnering with the music festival, an accusation Barclays denies.

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The Great Escape was not the first cultural event to be affected by the conflict. In March, the Barbican backed out of hosting a London Review of Books lecture series because it included a talk by the writer Pankaj Mishra that was titled The Shoah after Gaza.

The decision to back out led to several artists withdrawing work from Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, leaving large gaps in a major show, with the Barbican’s chief executive acknowledging the decision had caused “significant concern about artistic freedom”.

Arts Council England was accused of bowing to government pressure when it released guidance that said “political statements” could break funding agreements shortly after a meeting with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport where the Israel-Gaza war was discussed.

Home theatre in Manchester and the Arnolfini arts centre in Bristol backed out of hosting events featuring Palestinian artists or speakers, before u-turning or apologising after sustained pressure from campaigners.

At the same time as the Great Escape was held in Brighton, there were protests and counter-protests outside the Everyman theatre in north London, as a Jewish film festival went ahead despite security concerns and calls for a boycott because it was partly sponsored by the Israeli government.

From music and film to visual arts and theatre, there is nowhere in Britain’s cultural landscape where the conflict in the Middle East hasn’t spread and as the summer starts more boycotts and protests are on the horizon.

The genteel surroundings of the Hay literary festival in Powys, Wales, later this week will see political protest because the event is sponsored by the investment firm Baillie Gifford.

Last week, Fossil Free Books (FFB), a campaign group that says it is working to achieve “a genocide free, fossil-free books industry” renewed its call for the Hay sponsor to divest from fossil fuel.

Backed by authors Naomi Klein and Sally Rooney, FFB also called for Baillie Gifford to divest “from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide”, as it believes that “solidarity with Palestine and climate justice are inextricably linked”.

A spokesperson from Baillie Gifford said that 2% of its clients’ money is invested in “companies with some business related to fossil fuels”, compared with the market average of 11%. Baillie Gifford also believes FFB’s assertion that the company has “nearly £10bn invested in companies with direct or indirect links to Israel’s defence, tech and cybersecurity industries” to be “seriously misleading”. The figure is “based on conflating two different types of exposure”, a spokesperson said. But despite its rebuttals some form of protest is expected at this week’s event, which is the year’s most important literary event.

The Labour MP Dawn Butler and author Grace Blakeley are among those who have withdrawn from scheduled appearances at Hay festival over its sponsorship by Baillie Gifford.

Related: Should the UK stop arming Israel? – podcast

Those driving the campaigns claim a similar momentum is building to one created by the cultural boycotts that helped to end the apartheid regime in South Africa. Opponents of the boycotts, such as the singer Nick Cave, have previously called them “cowardly and shameful”.

Whatever position cultural figures take, one thing is certain: the protests and boycotts will be here at least as long as the current flare-up in the conflict – which has no sign of ending soon.

“Cultural organisations will increasingly be held to account by artists and audiences,” said a spokesperson for Artists for Palestine, who sees the protests as a turning point. “We think this genie cannot be put back in the bottle.”

A spokesperson from BBB said more bands and artists were realising that boycotting is a way to make their voices heard. They said: “It shows that there is collective power that acts have. They can act together in an industry that often pits one act against the other for lineup spots and gig opportunities.”

The next target for Bands Boycott Barclays is July’s Latitude, one of the biggest music festivals in the UK, and then the Isle of Wight festival, both of which are sponsored by Barclaycard. BBB says it will approach the organisers “in good faith” to tell them about their concerns with the Barclays sponsorship.

The Guardian contacted Isle of Wight festival, Latitude and the Great Escape for comment.

A spokesperson for Barclays said the bank recognises “the profound human suffering caused by this conflict”, but added that Barclays “does not make its own investments” in the nine defence companies and acts on the instruction of its clients.

The spokesperson said: “As a bank, our job is to provide financial services to businesses, including those in the defence sector. Clients in this sector include US, UK or European companies which supply defence products to Nato and other allies including Ukraine and are an important contributor to our security in the UK. Decisions on arms embargos are rightly the job of elected governments.”

• This article was amended on 21 May 2024. The Hay literary festival is in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, not Cambridgeshire as an earlier version said.