I wrote playfully on my About page that my dual nationality ought to be no problem as long as the US and the UK don’t “descend into open warfare”. With the FIFA World Cup US vs. UK match scheduled for tonight, figuring out which team to cheer for was the worst conflict of interest I thought I’d be liable to run up against.
But then came the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently the press coverage here took a strange turn, with reports of politicians and prominent figures accusing Obama and his administration of spouting “anti-British rhetoric”, with calls for the British Prime Minister to “protect BP”. What on earth were they talking about?
On Thursday evening, radio and television reports began to air the view that Obama is painting the problem as BP’s fault in order to deflect criticism from himself. But surely Obama paints the leak as BP’s fault because it was not Obama’s oil rig that failed, but BP’s.
A former British trade minister interviewed on BBC radio Friday said that he was afraid the situation was being hijacked by American political posturing having to do with the midterm elections. Well, actually he said he “didn’t want BP to fall foul of domestic pork-barrel politics with midterm elections coming up”, but I don’t think he actually knows what “pork-barrel politics” means, because there’s no pork-barrel involved in this issue.
Things began to fall into place when I realized that these speakers were reacting to the BP spill as if it were only a matter of politics. It isn’t; the oil is real. All the politicking in the world doesn’t change the fact that 40 thousand barrels of oil a day (or whatever figure you trust from the variety seen in print) is fouling fishing grounds, beaches, and wildlife refuges.
As for “anti-British rhetoric”, nobody in the Obama administration has said anything against the British people or the British nation. In fact, I have not been able to find examples of any anti-British message coming from anybody in the US government—or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough, but if I haven’t, neither has British Foreign Secretary William Haig, who has said that he hasn’t heard anything from Americans that he would class as anti-British.
So where’s this anti-British rhetoric? The only example I can find is ludicrous: Obama and other administration figures have slipped up and called the company British Petroleum instead of BP, which many people here take as “anti-British”. Surely this is a desperate grasp for the flimsiest of straws. It seems hardly possible that while poison spreads, people could be so appallingly hypersensitive to correct forms of address, or wouldn’t give the benefit of doubt to Americans who don’t know that the initials BP have lost their referrents, that BP—after having been known as British Petroleum since 1954—officially changed its name in 1998.
Some commentators here have suggested that holding BP responsible for the disaster is anti-British because if BP goes bankrupt, it will devastate the British economy. This is in part because so many pension funds here have their money invested in BP shares. I’m sorry that pensioners may lose money because of BP’s practices, or even because of BP’s bad luck, but I’m sorrier about the enormous damage to New Orleans’ culture and way of life (because this goes far beyond its economy) and to wildlife. If the hurricane season spreads the oil over hundreds of miles, it’s not the British economy I’ll be thinking of first, nor the need to “protect BP”.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said “OK, [BP] has presided over a catastrophic accident, which it is trying to remedy, but ultimately it cannot be faulted because it was an accident that took place and BP, I think, is paying a very, very heavy price indeed.”
Can BP really be that easily absolved? Here’s another British voice: Andrew Sullivan, a conservative British columnist who lives in the USA, wrote in last Sunday’s Times (that’s the one in London, not the New York Times) about US authorities citing BP and other multinational oil companies for negligence and corner-cutting; in the past three years, counting only “egregious, wilful” violations, they cited Sunoco and ConocoPhillips 8 times each, while Citgo had 2 violations, and Exxon had 1. Oh, and BP? 760 violations.
So compared to the next-worst multinational oil companies, BP had almost 100 times as many egregious, willful (“wilful” is the UK spelling) violations of regulations. Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidence, then, that the accident happened to BP rather than to one of the others, and it’s not unreasonable to lay responsibility at BP’s door.
And if paying for the cleanup bankrupts BP? It may well be true that in the long run it would be unwise to require BP to pay every penny in cleanup costs and compensation that they should, but that does not make simply calling for BP to be held accountable an anti-British stance, any more than it is an anti-British stance to make the mistake of calling the company British Petroleum.
BP could have carried insurance to cover the costs of a catastrophic failure, which would have given it further defenses against bankruptcy; the company decided not to carry that insurance. They decided instead to self-insure, which just means they are uninsured. Perhaps BP believed its own press, and didn’t think a catastrophe like this could happen. The problem is that they didn’t just bet their company on that; they bet the lives of millions of aquatic and marsh creatures and the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of people who depend for their living on either tourism or on seafood: catching it, cooking it, feeding and housing tourists who come to the Gulf and eat it.
In the end, charges of anti-Americanism or anti-Britishism waste time and energy. Taking offence because Americans don’t know that BP is no longer meant to stand for British Petroleum does not save a single family fishing business, a single pelican, not even a single oyster. The problem isn’t the British economy, pensioners, or mid-term elections; it’s the cold hard facts of one of the largest man-made environmental disasters ever seen.
And it’s that size, the enormous scope of the disaster, that is another reason, I believe, that some British politicians are content to handle this as if it were merely a political problem: they simply don’t get how big this is. I’ve had ample evidence over the last decade that most British people do not grasp the vastness of the USA; at this point, I don’t think some of the commentators over here realize the scope of the oil problem. It’s in the Gulf of Mexico, right? That doesn’t sound so bad. How big can it be?
Apparently Shaun Ley, an anchorman on BBC Radio 4’s main mid-day news programme, “The World At One”, hasn’t quite taken in the areas involved. He referred Friday to the “oil leak off the coast of Mexico”. Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is huge, but the Gulf is 1000 miles wide. There are 4000 miles of coastline around the Gulf from the tip of Florida to Cancun, and New Orleans isn’t anywhere near Mexico.
The map at the top of this post may help put the size of things into perspective. If this “spill” were to have a twin in the English Channel, it would reach from Norwich almost 400 miles around the south coast of England to Portsmouth. It would coat all of Kent, East Sussex, and West Sussex, plus parts of Surrey, Hampshire, Middlesex and Berkshire. Oil would go up the Thames and inland past Reading. It would fill the Channel almost entirely, washing into France to contaminate Dunkirk and Calais and pretty much all of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie. That is the scale of the devastation.
The final frustration is hearing people claim that Obama’s intention to hold BP responsible is nationalism. On Friday’s “World At One” broadcast, Shaun Ley spoke to former trade minister Lord Digby Jones, who began by saying that he didn’t want the discourse to “descend into nationalism”, but followed that straightaway with this:
It was an American company that built this.
It was an American company that operated it.
It’s an American regulator that told these people not to go on shallow [sic] but to go out deep where the technology is at the border of what we can do.
It’s an American population that, the, that takes the black stuff and turns it into their gas guzzlers.
It’s an American Fed that takes the tax dollars—
At that point, Mr Ley cut him off, and asked Lord Jones what he wanted from the Prime Minister. He answered:
I want the Prime Minister to stand up and be counted to take this away from nationalism and make it understood that, you know, 40% of the dividends that come out of BP are going into American pension funds.
And the English stereotype holds that Americans have no sense of irony! Then again, perhaps Lord Jones doesn’t mind nationalism as long as it isn’t American nationalism.
Given that I’ve heard British people blame the USA for everything they dislike right down to too many brochures coming packaged with British magazines, I imagine the outcry here would be as bad or worse, and would be decidedly nationalistic, if a US-based multinational were to cause environmental damage of any kind in UK waters, much less something of epic scale. (I refer to a “US-based multinational” because there have been claims here that BP, being a multinational, cannot validly be called a British company.)
I still haven’t decided which team I’ll cheer tonight in the World Cup match. As for the BP oil leak, I’m not going to take a nationalistic stance; I’m on the side of clean waters, oil-free wildlife, good fishing, and seafood gumbo. I believe that BP made the mess and BP should take responsibility to the fullest extent it can. If that makes people think I’m anti-British, so be it.