Angry Britons have BP’s back


He may still be more popular in Britain than he is in America, but these days the Brits have a new message for President Obama.

Back off.

As the Obama administration has joined the chorus of U.S. politicians lambasting BP over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a plume of anger is rising across the Atlantic at what many see as an unfair castigation of a British icon. U.S. officials have demanded that BP suspend dividend payments for the time being, and Obama has said he would have fired Chief Executive Tony Hayward if Hayward worked for him.

Grandstanding and buck-passing, say many British politicians, pundits and pensioners, hitting back at what they see as intimidation tactics directed at a company that has brought immense value to the British — and global — economy.

The protectiveness toward BP is especially acute because the company’s dividends provide a significant share of income for British pension funds. While acknowledging the enormity of the unfolding ecological disaster, British critics say the Obama administration has gone overboard in its criticism and is now endangering the savings of millions of shareholders who have watched BP’s plunge in the stock market.

BP’s stock has lost close to half its value since the spill occurred, though it was up by $1.19 to $33.97 on Friday.

“The president should make it clear that he has no desire to destroy a great global company,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former Cabinet minister, warned Friday. “The future of its chief executive is for the company to decide and not for the White House. While he might, as he has said, wish to ‘kick ass,’ he should concentrate his energies on more productive activity.”

Rifkind was writing in the Times of London, which also published a cartoon titled “USA v. England,” depicting Obama in a soccer outfit stamped with the words “Sponsored by Midterm Elections Inc.” and kicking a soccer ball labeled “BP.” The U.S. is scheduled to play England in the World Cup on Saturday.

The cartoon was mild compared with an extraordinary open letter to Obama this week from John Napier, chairman of British insurance giant RSA.

“Your comments towards BP and its CEO … are coming across as somewhat prejudicial and personal,” said Napier, who accused the U.S. of “double standards” in its attitude toward BP and toward the damage caused by “the irresponsible, unchecked greed and avarice” of American banks.

“There is a sense here that these attacks are being made because BP is British,” Napier complained.

In truth, whether intemperate or not, little of the American criticism of BP could be said to slam Britain itself, the British government or the British people. Those who level that accusation here mostly point to Obama’s referring to BP by its old name, British Petroleum, which the company dropped in favor of just the initials more than a decade ago.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic have hastened to try to mask disagreements, emphasizing that the oil spill, though an environmental emergency, is not a diplomatic one.

Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are scheduled to speak by telephone this weekend. Cameron’s office said Friday that it expected the conversation to be statesmanlike and workmanlike, and repeated Cameron’s comments this week that he understood the frustration and anger in the U.S. over the oil spill.

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Thursday that “BP is a private company. This is not about the relationship between the United States and its closest ally.”

But Cameron’s measured response brought some opprobrium his way from more nationalistic quarters. The Daily Mail, usually a good barometer of popular opinion, chastised the prime minister for failing to adequately defend British interests. “Stand Up For Your Country, Mr. Cameron” blared its front page.

But there is also a quieter pushback against the populist politics being played in the U.S., where the Gulf of Mexico spill has been spun into a morality play in which the fat cat oil company executives are the villains. The anxiety of the British underscores that the issue is more nuanced: Those BP dividends are what keep aged pensioners warm in the winter, they say, noting that millions of Americans are also BP shareholders..

This is not the first time since Obama became president that some Britons have felt that they or one of their beloved institutions was being unfairly maligned across the Atlantic.

Last summer, during the healthcare debate in the U.S., people here were outraged when some Americans portrayed Britain’s socialized healthcare system as incompetent, inefficient and a virtual death sentence for those with cancer. Twitter campaigns, politicians and media commentators all sprang to the National Health Service’s defense.

The NHS affects nearly everyone in this country, far more than the estimated 18 million Brits with some kind of financial stake in BP, many of them through their pension funds.

Public outrage over Yankee criticism soon faded, and U.S.-British ties emerged unscathed.