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Search any official document published by BP plc, the oil giant now battling not only to cap the Mexican Gulf oil spillage but to save itself from a terminal collapse of investor confidence, and you will not find anywhere the words ‘British Petroleum’. The full version of the company name was dropped more than a decade ago, when the merger with US oil giant Amoco turned it into a transnational conglomerate with the green-tinged but much-mocked slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’.
One would not know this to listen to Barack Obama, who misses no opportunity to denounce ‘British Petroleum’ for the disaster which befell an American-owned, Korean-built rig leased by BP’s US subsidiary. It is as if a British pirate expedition had sailed over and drilled a wildcat well. As public anger rises, ‘British Petroleum’ is getting the blame. It is said in some quarters that Britain is now more unpopular in America than at any time since 1776.
Transocean, the owner of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig, relocated for tax reasons first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland. Halliburton, the controversial Texan firm once chaired by George W.
Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney, had a hand in the ‘cementing’ processes that failed to protect the rig against explosion. The US Coast Guard service has some explaining to do about whether its firefighting techniques made the subsequent containment exercise more difficult. The federal government’s actions in mobilising resources to minimise environmental damage have been judged by 60 per cent of recent Gallup poll respondents to be ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.
Americans’ judgment on their own President’s response has also been harsh — so it is understandable that he wishes to direct their ire to a different target, preferably a foreign one. Yet when judgment is reached about this catastrophe, blame for the explosion itself seems likely to be apportioned between all the corporate actors and the forces of nature itself. Blame for the time taken to find an effective method of capping the leak will rest with BP, which accepts that responsibility, but is also down to the limits of technology. no operation of this kind has ever been carried out at such an ocean depth.
There is no defending Tony Hayward, head of BP, who has made matters worse for his company by offering ill-judged remarks for US media and politicians to pounce upon. But the US government has not sought to take over from BP in the capping operation, because it knows there is nothing it could do that BP is not already doing, with every resource at its disposal and at extreme cost to its shareholders. Instead, the White House is talking about bringing criminal prosecution against the company.
How convenient it will be if the most prominent executives lined up to be prosecuted — Hayward perhaps among them — turn out to be British: that would appeal to a certain element of American xenophobia, so much at odds with its commitment to free trade.
BP is in deep trouble in the Gulf, and is doing its best to face up to its legitimate responsibilities. But President Obama’s use of the word ‘British’ to attack the company misses the mark in a way that does no credit to the White House. Obama has manifestly struggled to respond to this catastrophe — this is a matter between him and the American electorate. He might come across as more convincing if he were to recognise a fundamental truth: that this is a environmental tragedy with many players where no one party is predominantly to blame.
The idea that you can jack up prices — by taxation or other means — and thereby shape society seems to mesmerise politicians. So the new estimates by the Department of Heath that a minimum price for alcohol — of 50p per ‘unit’ — would mean precisely 43,800 fewer crimes a year and 296,900 fewer sick days is like a magic wand to be waved at the dispatch box. What officials forget is that people find ways of adapting to and circumventing government rules. Tobacco in Britain is very heavily taxed, purportedly to discourage its use. The Treasury now estimates that one in five cigarettes smoked in Britain has been smuggled in illegally. In Scandinavia, where drink prices are extortionate, it is not uncommon for a bottle of pure bootleg alcohol to be plonked on the table and drunk like vodka.
Those whom raising the price of booze is meant to deter — the young in deprived housing estates — turn to cheaper, more destructive alternatives. The collapse of drug prices in Britain means that a marijuana joint costs £2.50, a tab of ecstasy £3 and a line of cocaine £4. For too many young people, a trip to the off-licence is already a more expensive way to a good time. Increasing drink prices only serves to make more dangerous options more attractive.
The Conservatives have rightly highlighted the problem of social decay in what David Cameron calls Broken Britain. It is a complex problem that requires sophisticated solutions. Increasing alcohol prices is not one of them.
THE SPECTATOR 5 June 2010 5