COLUMN: BP oil spill highlights across-the-pond differences

Monday, June 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 12, 2010

LONDON – Just as the BP oil spill has made murky the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it has also made clear an inconvenient reality: Americans and Britons do not always speak the same language.

Of course, we both technically speak English. But when it comes to matters of politics, economics and diplomatic relations, the two countries are hardly on the same page right now..

Although they are considered allies, this transatlantic bickering has left the United States and Great Britain locked in a war of words.

In his recent primetime televised speech, President Barack Obama attempted to project the image of a tough-talking leader who will hold BP accountable for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and at any cost to the oil company.

When Obama said, "We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," it was the message Americans wanted to hear.

But the president's harsh remarks about BP – coupled with his past statements made using BP's former name, "British Petroleum" – were far less well received by our British allies across the pond, who instantly assumed an "us versus them" mentality. (BP officially changed its name from British Petroleum in 2001.)

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was among the first to speak out, accusing the U.S. of what he deemed "anti-British" rhetoric.

"I do think there's something slightly worrying about the anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America," Johnson said in an interview on a local radio program.

Lord Norman Tebbit, a former British government official, went a step further on his website when he called the U.S. reaction to BP, "a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance against a multinational company."

In opinion columns and on blogs, voices encouraged fledgling Prime Minister David Cameron to put the U.S. in its rightful place. A popular tabloid urged the prime minister on with a headline quoting from the film "Love Actually": "A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend." Cameron chose simply to publicly reiterate the "economic importance" of BP in Britain.

Clearly, some Britons have taken offense – but why? Why has the worst environmental disaster in United States history so catalyzed nationalistic sentiments in Britain?

As in anything, the economy plays a role. For U.K. residents, the oil spill is a serious matter of livelihood. According to BP, as stated by the BBC, the company's dividends account for 8 percent of the country's pension fund income.

Stock earnings here, too, will take a hit.

As a major international financial center, London was pummeled during the recession. Now, with the nation's largest company sinking rapidly into an ocean of oil, it will be all the more difficult for Britain to begin its economic recovery.

But the fact of the matter is, the company formerly known as British Petroleum is barely British at all. According to BP's numbers, U.K. shareholders own only 40 percent of the company, while U.S. investors own 39 percent of BP. American investors' pocketbooks will be similarly affected by the spill – and then there's that small matter of millions of gallons of oil threatening the U.S. coastline.

Even so, Americans have not been entirely above the fray.

A recent advertisement run by the city of New Orleans reads, "This isn't the first time New Orleans has survived the British," with the first time being the Battle of New Orleans. On "The Colbert Report," television comedian Stephen Colbert suggested the U.S. soccer team triumph over England in the World Cup by pouring millions of gallons of oil on England's players.

Ultimately, it appears the issue at hand has less to do with politics and more to do with the awakening of latent stereotypes. Although the U.S. and U.K. view each other as friends, the British cannot help sometimes but to perceive Americans as loud, obnoxious cowboys; likewise, Americans often fail to see Britons as anything but overly polite aristocrats with an inexplicable tea obsession.

As oil continues to flow from a BP well into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, British-American relations seem rather inconsequential, even petty. But in dealing with a country where etiquette and tradition rule, we must realize that a war of words is still a war – and knowingly continuing to alienate our steadfast allies will only do more harm than good.

Rebecca Berg is interning at CBS News and studying in London this summer through a Missouri School of Journalism study abroad program. She will return to the Missourian as an assistant city editor in the fall.

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Ellis Smith June 28, 2010 | 7:08 a.m.

@ Rebecca Berg

Well done article. The point that from an equity standpoint Americans own essentially the same percentage of BP as Brits do is worth remembering.

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