In Depth

US Anglophobes get another chance to stick it to BP

Lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jnr says it's not a British issue but that's hardly convincing given his family's reputation

Crispin Black

ROBERT F KENNEDY JNR, nephew of the assassinated US President John F Kennedy, has found a new outlet for the family's notorious Anglophobia – suing BP, or ‘British' Petroleum as President Obama likes to call the company, even though that hasn't been the company's name since it merged with the US oil giant Amoco in 2001. It's just BP.   Kennedy is one of the lawyers beginning a series of new lawsuits against BP over the 2010 Deepwater spill in the Gulf of Mexico – despite the fact that billions in fines and compensation have already been paid.

Kennedy used a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph to deny the argument that BP is being targeted because it is British owned.

"They are being picked on as an oil company that wrecked our Gulf and lied about it," he said. "I don't care if it's a British company or Exxon. I would rather sue Exxon than BP, because I think Exxon is a worse company. But Exxon didn't do the Gulf spill." Given the family's long history of not liking the British, this is hardly convincing.

The founder of the modern Kennedy dynasty, Joseph P Kennedy, the grandson of Irish immigrants, nursed a peculiar antagonism towards us. He was a crony and possible rival to President Roosevelt who appointed him Ambassador to the Court of St James in 1938. It was a disaster.

Kennedy could disguise neither his contempt for the British nor his rampant anti-Semitism. He was a menace, spending most of his time vociferously supporting appeasement and seeking meetings with Nazi officials without informing the State Department – even after the start of the war. During the Blitz, when the royal family, the British establishment and most diplomatic missions in London were trying to set an example of calmness and fortitude, Kennedy did a bunk to the countryside. One Foreign office official said in an unattributable briefing at the time: "I thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joseph Kennedy." King George VI is supposed to have described him as "a stinker" – though somehow it doesn't quite ring true because, when provoked, the King had a taste for naval slang that used saltier epithets for the likes of Joe Kennedy. Kennedy's most recent biographer has suggested that he flew into a rage when it became apparent that the RAF had, against the odds, won the Battle of Britain because it would only postpone our inevitable defeat by Nazi Germany. In November 1940 Roosevelt recalled him to Washington where he was offered no further part in the war effort. Not all members of the family shared Joseph's views. JFK's beautiful younger sister, Kathleen, enjoyed her time in England and returned here during the war to help the Red Cross. In May 1944 she married the Marquess of Hartington, the Duke of Devonshire's son and heir. A major in the Coldstream Guards, he was killed in action just four months later. She too died young - in an air crash in France while planning to marry another Englishman. Thankfully, there seems to have been little sign of it in JFK himself, who got on well with then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan - who was Kathleen's uncle by marriage. But the gene was certainly passed on to the late Senator Edward Kennedy (Robert F Kennedy Jnr's father) – possibly the most notoriously anti-British member of the clan. A man of otherwise irregular and erratic habits, his Anglophobia and support for the IRA were a constant in his political life. The antipathy of one clan descended from refugees from the potato famine is not perhaps significant – but the renewed legal attack on BP takes its cue from President Obama's own spite and aggression. The normally mild-mannered Vince Cable called Obama's attack on BP in 2010 "extreme and unhelpful". Boris Johnson went one step further, calling Obama "anti-British". Of course, BP should pay for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are limits. The suspicion is that the company is being used as a cash cow by campaigning and ambulance lawyers in a way the American authorities would not allow for a wholly American company. Not exactly the behaviour of a close ally, particularly as BP's share price is crucial to the UK pensions industry.

At least there might be a silver lining in this for BP.  Kennedy is Professor of ‘Environmental Law' at Pace University Law School in New York. According to US News & World Report, it is the nation's 134th best law school. Perhaps BP's lawyers are still in with a chance.

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