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British taking U.S. fury at BP personally

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward is sworn in Thursday for a hearing in Washington on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

Win McNamee/Win McNamee/Getty Images

To American eyes, Thursday's congressional hearing may have looked like a rather self-assured Englishman evading questions about his London-based company's Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. In certain British circles, though, it was another transatlantic attack from a long-time ally.

BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who faced hours of congressional grilling Thursday, has striven to identify his firm as a multinational, rather than British, enterprise, going so far as having his staff ask U.S. President Barack Obama to stop identifying it by its original name of British Petroleum.

But a growing circle of British politicians and commentators now see the U.S. fury at BP's response to the Deepwater Horizon spill as an attack on Britain itself, and Mr. Obama's anger at BP this week as a personal attack on the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States.

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In part, this is because almost a fifth of all British pension funds, by some estimates, are tied up in BP shares, so the company's collapse would affect millions of lives.

But the BP showdown has ignited smouldering resentments over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S.-triggered financial crisis, and the cooler attitudes toward the United States among supporters of the governing Conservatives and Liberal Democrats compared with their Labour opponents.

Prime Minister David Cameron stepped into the fray this week when he used a radio interview to identify BP with Britain's interest, though he stopped short of criticizing Mr. Obama.

"BP is an important company," he said. "It is an important company for people's pensions, it employs thousands of people in the U.K., it pays a lot of tax. It's important to try to give some level of clarity and certainty so that the company can actually continue and be financially stable," he said.

That was mild compared with the vitriol directed at Mr. Obama and the United States by other senior Conservatives and the furious broadsides in the conservative media.

On Thursday, Britain's second-largest newspaper, the Daily Mail, speculated in a full-page column that perhaps Mr. Obama's "Kenyan origins have left him with a hostility to the British Empire," as shown by his decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

It then denounced Mr. Obama's "dishonest attempts to blame us for the oil spill" as a politician "going for cheap votes by blaming foreigners."

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Similar columns have been appearing in the large-circulation tabloids all week.

More significantly, important figures in the governing Conservative Party have begun to speak out, expanding upon anti-Americanism that began to emerge from Tory circles during the election in May.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, an influential figure in the Conservative Party, has been the most forceful in characterizing the BP crisis as a U.S. attack on Britain. He denounced the "anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America."

He added: "When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up."

For the past 13 years, Britain's Labour government had cultivated a tight relationship with the United States, one in which it was considered taboo among senior politicians to criticize U.S. actions.

This year's election served as a backlash against that intense version of the "special relationship," and both Mr. Cameron and his coalition partner, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, promised to have a cordial but more distant and critical relationship with the United States.

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Mr. Cameron said that Britain should have "a solid but not slavish" relationship with the United States, in contrast with Labour's lockstep support; Mr. Clegg called for a reversal of "the default Atlanticism that has governed British foreign policy."

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, told Newsweek that he considered their approach "a strategic tilt away from the United States."

Members of Mr. Cameron's Conservatives tend to be more reflexively anti-American than Labour (though Labour has its own well of anti-Americanism).

Norman Tebbit, a Tory grandee and right-wing firebrand famous for his role in Margaret Thatcher's governments, launched an attack on Mr. Obama and the Americans on the weekend, describing the criticism of BP as a sign of national weakness.

"The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill," he said, "so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational company?"

This forced Mr. Clegg to call on his supporters, and the Tories who share benches with him, to cool down - and for the Americans to do the same.

"I don't frankly think we will reach a solution to stopping release of oil into the ocean any quicker by allowing this to spiral into a tit-for-tat political diplomatic spat," he said.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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