Britons Bristle At American Attacks On BP

Correction June 11, 2010

In a previous Web version of this story, a reference was made to the company Transocean being American. Transocean is registered in Switzerland.

BP station in Heston, southern England i i

hide captionMany in Britain believe attacks by President Obama and others on BP have been designed to draw the focus away from his administration and to BP and its British CEO, Tony Hayward. Britons are taking offense at what they say is the anti-British tone of the rhetoric.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
BP station in Heston, southern England

Many in Britain believe attacks by President Obama and others on BP have been designed to draw the focus away from his administration and to BP and its British CEO, Tony Hayward. Britons are taking offense at what they say is the anti-British tone of the rhetoric.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Shares in BP rose Friday on the London Stock Exchange, despite reports that the company will suspend its second-quarter dividend. BP had been under pressure from the Obama administration to make such a move and use the funds to intensify cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

But many people in Britain have bristled at some of President Obama's attacks on BP, saying that the tone from Washington has become distinctly anti-British.

Lord Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher's former deputy, called Obama's criticisms of BP "a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance."

He was expressing the views of what many in Britain say is Obama's attempt to keep U.S. anger focused away from his administration and on BP and its English CEO, Tony Hayward.

One of Britain's top business leaders, John Napier, has written an open letter to Obama to complain.

"The language and rhetoric of this dispute is going into the danger zone, is becoming too highly personalized. The interpretation over here, not just by me but others, is that it has a certain anti-British rhetoric to it — and that has to be of concern," he said.

Various experts in Britain have pointed out that not only is BP a huge multinational with many assets and employees in the United States, but companies other than BP were also implicated in the oil spill, although they are not taking as much of the blame as is BP. And, they add, the oil was all for the U.S. market.

Other commentators and bloggers have picked up on that point. "You want the oil, America?" asked one. "You clean up the mess."

The British government's response so far has been much more measured. Speaking on a visit to Afghanistan, new Prime Minister David Cameron said he understood the U.S. government's frustration over the spill. But then the famously jingoistic Daily Mail newspaper ran a front-page headline that read, "Stand up for your country, Mr. Cameron."

The mood was heightened further by suggestions from Washington that BP should suspend its dividend to shareholders; some British news outlets say that will be announced next week.

Since major British and some U.S. pension funds are heavily invested in BP, politicians such as the Labour Party's Tom Watson haven't taken kindly to the suggestion.

"Prime Minister David Cameron is in Afghanistan to show solidarity with our American allies for the work we're doing over there. I hope that he demands that solidarity back for British pensioners and U.S. pensioners," Watson said.

But not everyone in Britain is up in arms about the rhetoric from Washington, like Michael Howard, the former leader of the British Conservative Party. "We need to bear in mind what we on this side of the Atlantic would feel like if an American company had been responsible for the biggest oil spill in our history and had admitted that there were shortcomings in the way in which it had planned its operations, as BP pretty well has — I think we would be pretty cross with that American company," Howard said.

The White House has invited BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to meet with senior Obama administration officials next Wednesday, while British leader Cameron is due to speak to Obama over the weekend.

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