The BP oil spill is exposing cross-Atlantic differences on the best public face to present amid crisis. Britons – tens of thousands of whom are BP shareholders – appreciate stoicism, but Americans want emotion and contrition.
Surely, who but a small club of wealthy investors could shed a tear for BP, which has seen a quarter of its share value wiped out since the beginning of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?
Clue: remember what those initials stand for.
If you thought that fat-cat shareholders were the only losers from the oil giant’s pounding on the international markets, then spare a thought for tens of thousands of ordinary Britons whose futures are heavily linked to the firm’s fortunes.
Shareholder dividends paid out by BP last year accounted for as much as £1 in every £7 paid by the biggest 100 firms into Britain’s pension funds and saving plans.
So when BP's shares plunge as a result of President Obama's initiation of a criminal investigation into the Macondo oil well disaster, British pensions take a hammering as well.
It’s also why many on this side of the Atlantic are more than sympathetic to the challenge facing BP's embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, who is expected to risk incurring further wrath in the US by defying calls from US senators to halt more than $10 billion worth of payouts due to shareholders this year.
Mr. Hayward, now believed to be battling to hang on to his job, returned to London from the US last night to speak to investors.
One commentator in a leading right-wing British newspaper this week accused President Obama of “vitriol” that was “unwise and potentially dangerous” for saying that he was “enraged and heartbroken” after BP's attempts to staunch the flow had failed.
In the same piece for the mass circulation Daily Mail, Stephen Glover suggested that the President’s impatience with BP owed as much to anti-British prejudice.
"I don't wish to sound paranoid, but it is pretty clear that Mr Obama does not much like anything that is British,” he added. “There is an anti-British undertow throughout his book Dreams From My Father, with slighting references to the country and its citizens."
Others, such as Prof. Michael Cox, an associate of the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House, agree that Obama may be “slightly playing the British card” in terms of deploying some “anti-big business, anti oil” rhetoric since the crisis.
“It’s true that he carries some different emotional baggage from, say, George W. Bush’s father, who had a different emotional memory towards Britain because of the Second World War,” he adds.
It’s also true, says Professor Cox, that the Obama White House is not "quite so enthusiastic about the fabled ‘special relationship’ with Britain because of the emergence of new geopolitical realities in the world, such as the emergence of India and China."
That said, Cox stresses that British-US ties remain firm, not least because of intensive cooperation at a diplomatic and security level, and because of the British contribution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
“Don’t forget also that the American economy is still very, very dependent on inward investment by foreigners," he says, "and the biggest foreign direct investor in the US is guess who? The UK.”
Allyson Stewart-Allen of International Marketing Partners, a consultancy specializing in advising European and US companies on developing their operations on either side of the Atlantic, also says that Obama has a “high need for fantastic relations with the UK for military and economic purposes.”
She adds, however: “In terms of BP, the issue for the UK is that if British Airways and BAE systems and all of the big investors from this country are tainted by BP’s problems, and if there is potential for the country brand to start to decline in value, then that is the bigger worry. In a way – if people start to think ... ‘it's British, it’s not very good.’ ”
From a damage control point of view, the situation hasn’t been helped by Tony Hayward apparently not being aware of how Americans receive messages, says Ms. Stewart-Allen, a Californian who also holds a British passport.
“Self-deprecation is something Americans do not do, and for Tony Haywood to say ‘I want my life back’ and to say ‘we don’t have all the tools in the tool box’ is absolutely the wrong thing to say,” she adds.
“Americans want confidence, we want assurance and we want to know that this guy, leading a multibillion dollar company, himself on a five million dollar plus salary knows what he is doing, and saying ‘we don’t have all the tools in our tool box’, or something close to that, does not inspire confidence.”
“The other thing about the way Tony Haywood is being received - as a kind of stand-offish, unemotional, fairly stoic Brit – is that here in the UK it would be absolutely the right thing for him. There, it is not. We want to see contrition, we want to see serious upset, we want to see emotion.”