POLITICS JULY 11, 2010
Just over 45 years ago, I set foot in the United States for the first time. If you had sat the old Oxford scholarship exam in December and, in Simon Gray’s deathless definition of the pedagogical process, displayed a fluent fraudulence that the examiners could not expose without revealing their own fraudulence, you were able to take the next nine months off before going up as a freshman in October.
So, “westward, look, the land is bright!”—a line Churchill liked to quote—and I set off to the New World, more precisely, to Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’ of southern California. Obsessed with movies (and jazz) in those days, I would have been happy carrying coffee cups in any studio, and a friend of my father’s who worked for the Disney company promised to find me a job. So he did, and, for several weeks, I swept the floor in Disneyland from midnight until eight in the morning. After a while, I moved on, hitchhiking from sea to shining sea, taking in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York before reluctantly coming home to resume what passed for my education.
At present, Anglo-American relations have acquired an envenomed flavor, particularly, though not only, through the acute American hostility toward “British Petroleum.” Just as Tony Blair’s immediate reward for his absolute loyalty to Bush the Younger was a tariff that threatened to destroy what’s left of the British steel industry, our troops in Afghanistan may have heard tell of the Obama administration’s studied neutrality over the Falklands.
Even so and even now, I look back to that summer, floor-sweeping aside, with many happy memories. Wish they all could be California girls. I loved the United States then, and more with every visit since. But I also realized that this was another country. For all my affection, I’ve come, over the years, to understand what Chesterton meant: Nowhere on earth does an Englishman feel so much a foreigner as in the United States. Besides that, I became aware that my warm Infeelings were by no means always reciprocated. There is nothing so new in what we’ve heard in recent weeks: American Anglophobia is a long-lived and vigorous tradition.
Defending BP or Tony “I want my life back” Hayward is a hopeless task. The company’s conduct has been way beyond indefensible, and Hayward makes his compatriots cringe, though we smiled when an American interviewed on BBC radio asked derisively whether the hapless head of BP was some kind of “lord, or a duke...?” If I may say, no one English would easily mistake Hayward for a nobleman, or a gentleman. He illustrates the problems with meritocracy rather than privilege, a competent geologist who has been promoted way too far, and one can only agree with Rahm Emanuel, who said dryly that Hayward would not be making a second career in public relations.
But hold on a moment. Did Cap’n Hayward and his rascally crew sail into the Gulf of Mexico flying the skull and crossbones and flourishing cutlasses, before drilling away merrily in defiance of all law and custom? No, BP has been legally operating for years, by way of paying for leases from the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The company has made huge profits for its stockholders, about 40 percent of whom are American; it has also provided huge revenues for the U.S. Treasury; and it has done all of this by way of slaking the unquenchable American thirst for cheap fuel. It wasn’t the absurd Hayward who forced the American people to consume 20 million barrels of oil a day or to expect even now to buy gas at the pump at a price per volume that Europeans literally pay for some brands of mineral water.
To argue, as Boris Johnson, the flamboyant mayor of London, did (and as I’m ashamed to admit I have also done in a London paper), that President Obama’s rhetoric has sent down the price of BP stock and damaged the pensions of many British people, is ignoble, however true. Fiat justitia: Let justice be done though the heavens fall in, even on a little old lady in Budleigh Salterton.
But it’s still more foolish for Americans to ask how the Brits would like it if something like Deepwater Horizon happened off their own coast. They’ve forgotten the name of Piper Alpha, the oil rig whose explosion in the North Sea in 1988 killed 167 men, 15 times more than those who died on Deepwater Horizon. It was owned by the U.S. company Occidental Petroleum, whose chief executive was not hauled before a Parliamentary committee in London or denounced in anti-American tones by Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister. And we might remember the worst horror, the leak of toxins in 1984 from the Bhopal pesticide plant owned by a subsidiary of the U.S. company Union Carbide, which killed 2,259 Indians immediately (and gruesomely) and, by some estimates, as many as 20,000 in the end.
In any case, incompetence or negligence on BP’s part cannot explain the spasm of Brit-bashing, from the Obama administration and Nancy Pelosi repeatedly saying “British Petroleum” (for what it’s worth, it has been officially known for years as “BP,” tout court, like “AT&T”) to Representative Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, saying that anyone from BP talking with a British accent is lying.
Still, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised in view of that long-lived Anglophobia. Not only did the United States begin with a rebellion against the British crown. The revolution was led by men like Thomas Jefferson, who said of England that he would willingly “lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean,” and Benjamin Franklin, who rejoiced that every other country “wishes to see Britain humbled, having all in their turns been offended by her insolence.” The revolutionists believed, of course, that they were fighting for the noble cause of liberty. Maybe so. But they were also fighting for a free hand to deal with what the Declaration of Independence calls “the merciless Indian savages” and the right of free-born Americans to own other human beings. As that great English Tory Samuel Johnson asked at the time, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
After the rematch in 1812—when you sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I trust you remember that it was British rockets’ red glare—the two countries nearly went to war at least three times in the following 100 years. On each occasion, it was American sabres that were rattled: by President Polk over the Oregon border, by Secretary of State Seward during the Civil War, and by President Cleveland over the Venezuela border. More remarkably, it was recorded at the time of that last crisis in 1895 that, whereas the English regarded the prospect of conflict against the Americans with horror as a kind of fratricidal civil war, in the United States, a war with England would have been the most popular of all wars. Even in 1914, President Wilson worried that he might have to enter the war—against Great Britain. And, during the greatest of our wars, against the Third Reich, there were far more acute tensions and rivalries between the two countries than you would ever guess from Churchill’s account.
There is a long tradition of villainous Englishmen on screen, from James Mason in North by Northwest to Sideshow Bob (with whom I rather identify) in “The Simpsons,” and, nowadays, nearly every really nasty person in a Hollywood movie can be immediately identified by his English accent (just so you know he can’t be trusted, Weiner would doubtless say). Quite apart from endless cinematic celebrations of Irish freedom fighters, a film like Braveheart, starring that wellknown liberal philo-Semite Mel Gibson, “gave full rein to a toxic Anglophobia,” as the literary critic John Sutherland said. As to The Patriot (inevitably with Gibson again), a bigoted travesty of the history of the Revolutionary War is one thing, but the director was German. There were no massacres of villagers in South Carolina during that war, but, if Roland Emmerich looked into it, he would find that, within living memory, whole French, Czech, Greek, and Italian villages were indeed exterminated, and the army responsible was not British.
For an English journalist, of all people, to complain about American Anglophobia might seem ungrateful to the point of absurdity. The Land of Liberty still says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be magazine editors,” and not all of my expatriate compatriots seem to have found an English drawl a disadvantage; indeed, Representative Weiner might try looking for another kind of Hitch in the argument. All the same, the bitter denunciations of British Petroleum seem incautious as long as the British army is helping with so many of America’s wars. One day, that kind of hostility might just be reciprocated.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!