Boaty McBoatface, an unwritten constitution, and the will of the people

The contest to name the new polar research ship has now closed and Boaty McBoatface was the runaway winner with 124,109 votes. The next most popular name (Poppy-Mai, to commemorate a sixteen-month-old girl with incurable cancer) had only 34,371. It’s Bloody Cold Here came in fourth with 10,679.

So is the government going to respect the will of the people? Probably not. Admit it, you wouldn’t have bet much on the chances, would you?

Irrelevant photo: a Cornish dry stone wall.

Irrelevant photo: a Cornish dry stone wall.

Science Minister Jo Johnson announced that “the new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people. That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social media news cycle.”

Those two sentences don’t entirely hang together, but never mind. If you stick a wad of that’s why in between them, they give the appearance of connection and hardly anybody stops to think, Icy waters? Social media cycle? Wait a minute, what do they have to do with each other?

Besides, the name’s already lasted longer than your average social media cycle. Adopt it that and it’ll last longer yet. Furthermore, you’re the guys who created a contest on social media. What did you think was going to happen?

Oh, stop arguing, Ellen. They’re not listening.

So is anyone upset by this? Well, as the Guardian headline so mildly put it, “Tyrants have crushed the people’s will.”

The Guardian doesn’t go in for overstatement and never will.

And a Guardian letter writer asked how, if you can’t trust the people to choose the name of a ship, you can trust them to decide whether or not to leave the European Union.

We’ll let those two comments speak for the nation, okay? I’m sure it’s a representative sample.

In case you need to know this, Science Minister Jo is male, in spite of the way he spells his name. This may be one of those British/American things, because a Robert Burns poem mentions a Jo whose full name is John Anderson (“John Anderson, my Jo”). (I’m using the British mostly lower-case headline and title style here, which feels entirely weird when the only lower-case letter in on my. Never mind. That’s a digression within a digression.) The news story referred to this Jo—Jo Johnson—as he, reasonably enough, but since the Guardian, even if it doesn’t go in for overstatement, used to indulge in typos so freely that it was known as the Grauniad, I wondered if the S in she had gone a-wandering among the fields so green, and I fact-checked it.

Don’t laugh. The little bit of fact checking that I do here—you know, when something truly important comes up—keeps me from spinning off into outer space.

After all that, I didn’t end up referring to Jo as either he or she, but having fact-checked it, I couldn’t let all that work go to waste. Hence this meander through waves of irrelevancy and bad metaphor, after which we’ll return to our point if we remember what it was—and who, in addition to me, we is made up of.

Our topic, girls and boys, was the people’s will, so I hope you’ll allow me to say this: Boaty McBoatface, you were a great ship, even if you continue to be an imaginary one. Your memory will never be sullied by the failures encountered by real ships. And your name will forever appear in the italics proper to all great ships, even if it never graces the prow of a research vessel.

Wanna bet a hundred rowboats, sailboats, and fishing boats appear around the coasts of Britain sporting that name?

So. With the important stuff out of the way, we can now turn to our second news update, which has to do with the doctors’ strikes. I’ll run through as quick a summary as I can manage in an effort to keep anyone who isn’t British—oh, you know I have to say it: on board.

Quick summary: Tyrants crush the people’s will.

No, that was about Boaty. Sorry.

Longer quick summary: Our darling government has been screwing around with a beloved British institution (beloved and the screwing around are not exaggerations; darling is written with a snarl), the National Health Service, to the point where the NHS is now in serious trouble. At some point in the screwing-around process, the government decided to put a category of hospital doctors—called junior doctors, although they aren’t all that junior, but this is complicated enough, so let’s not get into that—on a seven-day schedule. Since it’s not funding the NHS well enough to keep the current five-day service from crumbling at the edges—well, I’m bad at math but even I see some problems here. To oversimplify vastly (sorry: I wrote a longer and infinitesimally more nuanced summary but it made pretty grim reading and I dumped it), the answer is to stretch the doctors even more thinly over the NHS drum.

The two sides negotiated for a while and when that broke down the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that he’d go ahead and impose the new contract. The doctors announced a series of one- and two-day strikes and five of them initiated a lawsuit, arguing that Hunt has no power to impose a contract.

So that’s the background. The latest twist is that Hunt’s response to the suit no longer talks about “imposing” the contract but about “introducing” it.

No big thing, I’d have thought, but I’d have been wrong, wrong, wrong. The doctors’ lawyer—sorry, let’s get all British here and call her a solicitor, because that’s what she is. Think of it this way if you’re confused: A solicitor is a lawyer; a barrister is a lawyer with chocolate sprinkles, in a waffle cone and a wig. Did that help?

The doctors’ solicitor says, “If the secretary of state was pretending to have a decision-making power but in fact only had the power to make recommendations…the secretary of state will have acted unlawfully by purporting to exercise a power he never had.”


The government is claiming he has the power to introduce the new terms under the 2006 NHS Act. But to impose the new terms? Where is that written? This begins to sound like a constitutional issue, doesn’t it? And that’s why I dragged you through all that not-terribly-fun background. Because Britain has what it likes to call an unwritten constitution, which is made up of past laws, unwritten conventions (these govern procedure), common law (that means precedent), and a random collection of written documents ranging from the Magna Carta (1215) to the Human Rights Act (1998) to a scrap of paper I lost in the mound on the floor beside my computer (2016).

What fascinates me is how you challenge or defend a politician’s power to do something when you have to argue it on the basis of an unwritten constitution. Do you read every case law that might be vaguely relevant? Every statute? How many pages is that? What if you miss the important one? How do you find out about unwritten conventions? Better yet, how do you prove you didn’t make them up? Or that someone else didn’t? They’re, um, not written. Do you do a quick recon on the Magna Carta to see what it had to say, in 1215, about the National Health Service, which wouldn’t be created for another 800 or so years? Will anyone notice that I lost that scrap of paper? Does the future of the NHS rest on my lousy filing habits? Only time will tell, folks. It was on lined yellow paper, with a strip torn off the bottom where I jotted down a phone number. If you see it, let me know ASAP, okay? It could be important.

71 thoughts on “Boaty McBoatface, an unwritten constitution, and the will of the people

  1. To answer those questions at the end (“Do you read every case law that might be vaguely relevant? . . .”), yes, to all those questions. That’s what attorneys–I mean, solicitors do. You pick a field and you become an expert in it, and you’re supposed to know all of that stuff, and then people pay you big bucks/pounds.

    I saw the news story rejecting “Boaty McBoatface” and thought of your blog–I think the Science Minister should get over himself. It’s just a research ship and Boaty McBoatface is as good a name as any. If he wasn’t willing to accept the answer, he should not have asked the question.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I’m guessing that whoever came up with the idea of a contest has been kicked from one end of Westminster to the other. Which is a shame, because they (politicians, bureaucrats) always talk about how much they want public involvement, and gee, they did get it this time.


  2. “I’m pretty sure it happened” Hey, that covers a lot of ground. In this country, you might get half the jury do go along with you on that. We’d sue for sure if that boat wasn’t call Boaty McBoatface (it’s really a very cool name – cool…ice…get it?) Well, I’m sure I saw that yellow sheet of paper and I’m equally sure it said “we will bow to the will of the people when naming that boat” right next to the number for the curry place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, with that chosen name, I’d for once be happy if the government would do their usual thing and ignore the will of the people. And anyway, who’d call 124,109 votes the will of the people?
    Have a great weekend,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. The official answer is, I don’t know. If there has been, I suspect it was doomed by the British love of tradition. And every political faction’s distrust of all the other political factions–something that’s not particularly British but that factor heavily in anyone’s decision. There’s already a marginally workable system, however insane it may be, so why give all those other bastards a chance to stack the deck in their favor.

      You know….

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I too saw the Boaty McBoatface story, both in Canada and in the states – Tyrants crushing the will of the people is big news, nowadays. But no one bothered meandering through the inadequate logic and gender naming process that is the British. I got a few chuckles.

    As for challenging the constitution – I imagine that the doctors’ solicitor is actually John Cleese in a Fish Called Wanda. I have every confidence she will be brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does sound like she’s brilliant. Now all she has to do is win, which us the hard part.

      Tyrants crushing the will of the people is only big news when it’s about something irrelevant and funny (she said sourly). Most of the time the world just dances on, treating it like business as usual.


  5. Health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is doing that thing that politicians always do when it becomes evident to them that their proposed course of action is the wrong one – insist on carrying out said action no matter what. Plus, he wants to be seen as the government’s tough guy, in the image of ex education minister Michael Gove. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that Gove’s tough guy act with the teachers didn’t work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But along the same lines, Gove is still insisting that they’re going to turn all schools into academies, in spite of discontent within his own party, not to mention the evident insanity of the idea.


        • I suspect I didn’t, and I kinda knew I should but I wasn’t listening. The schools have been under the control of local government, and one of their responsibilities is to make sure there are enough places for every student, which takes a bit of planning ahead–something that’s not too difficult unless there’s a sudden influx of new residents, since kids get older at a fairly steady rate. Academies are free of local control–some are for-profit or nonprofit chains, some (I suspect not many) are started by parents or teachers or religions. They’re not responsible for counting noses and figuring out if there will be places for all the kids. So, guess what? When all the schools become academies, no one’s in charge of that.

          And if that isn’t enough of a problem, in the name of competition, academization leaves all the schools answerable to the central government, sidelining local people. And parents, who could at least take positions as school governors, but a recent move will sideline them as well.

          I could go on, but that’s enough. It’s another idea worked out in ten minutes on the back of an envelope.


          • Yikes. I can see some sense in a central government body setting a core syllabus and basic standards … but dammit, I wish governments would learn to back off and trust the people who elected them! Although maybe that’s precisely why they don’t trust them … they know what idiots we are… :(

            Liked by 1 person

  6. What the government are intent on doing (or continue doing) to the NHS is actually despicable. It is as if they drew up a list of the very things that make Britain great and decided to pick them to pieces and destroy them. I actually have no words, just despair.

    As for Boaty McBoatface, my husband and I both whooped with delight when we read it had won. With everything that is going on in the world right now, a bit of silliness and humour was just the counterpoint required. However, on a more serious note, the daft competition had people engaged in something that otherwise would have garnered little or no attention from the Joe Bloggs public. Would it not, therefore, be a good thing to keep them engaged by having missives sent back from the good ship Boaty McBoatface rather than from some vessel whose name everyone will forget in no time at all. Sometimes the silliness is the right tool to engage people and expose them to information they would otherwise ignore – something I remember well from my years of teaching. I hope the will of the people is upheld.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think they are throwing away a tremendous opportunity to get more people to pay attention to science by not naming the ship Boaty McBoatface. They’ll likely name it after some boring dead person and everyone will give one big collective yawn and resume looking at cute kitten videos. In an article I saw after reading your original post on this some Australian horse owners named their racehorse Horsey McHorseface. Now, who wouldn’t want to bet on him just to be able to cheer him on?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The BMA is amazing lobbying body…able to turn out their members, turn the attack on any challenger and fight to the death for the status quo. The last major negotiation on doctors pay managed to pay them more for doing less (including dropping off out of hours cover).

    I am no friend of the current government, I am a fan of the NHS, but I have seen enough to know that it is never as simple as “bad old (insert name of Minister)”, “good old Doctors”. Ernest Bevan managed to get the doctors support for setting up the NHS but to achieve that as he famously said he, “stuffed their mouths with gold”.

    It is fair to say the doctors are having to do more with less; they are by no means the first and they will not be the last, but they might be among the most articulate and influential. It would be great if we could leverage the same passion in support of nurses, teachers, police officers, let alone cleaners, carers and a hundred other roles.

    Lets talk over tea and cake,

    J’suis Boaty McBoatface

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more about rallying the same support around other professions–and around the nonprofessional medical workers, who have taken a beating lately. Personally, I haven’t forgiven the BMA for not opposing the reorganization of the NHS until the very last minute, by which time the battle was already lost.

      Nous sommes tous Boaty McBoatface, and let that be our rallying cry.


  9. So, I recently did a module on law, nestled away in my MSc. It’s far from comprehensive, as it’s a single module and relates mostly to water law. But there are a few things my eccentric lecturer (oh, like there’s any other kind) was adamant about, that the fact that UK constitution could rest on a piece of paper Ellen misplaced is one of them.
    The lesson in the UK law is this: no one reads the law and those that do (lost in a rounding error) aren’t listened to because the law is complicated and does not make for an interesting news story. Therefore, absolute shit happens without public scrutiny because no one thinks they care.
    The real answer here is in contract law; a contract is an agreement between two parties. No one has a right to introduce a contract only agreed by one party.
    (There’s a reason Jeremy Hunt’s name has been mispronounced on television and has replace ‘James Blunt’ as rhyming slang.)
    Ellen is absolutely right: it’s no exaggeration to say the British love the NHS, and (as anyone who knows a UK doctor can probably attest) what the stupid Hunt is doing really is nothing short of screwing with it. To death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whooo! Tell ’em.

      What you said about contract law is interesting–and now that you’ve said it seems obvious, only it wasn’t before you said it. Thanks for adding that to the discussion.

      And on a more serious note, I can’t hear Jeremy Hunt’s name anymore without wanting to giggle like a ten-year-old who just learned a dirty word. The story, for anyone who doesn’t know it (which will be anyone in another country), is this: He was, for a while, the culture secretary, and a BBC presenter transposed the C from culture into his name. I doubt anyone will think of him again without hearing its echoes.

      And finally, I have no idea how your lecturer knew about that paper I lost. It’s embarrassing to have my mistakes travel that far into the world, but I suppose it was inevitable.


  10. Poor Boaty McBoatface sunk before she ever got to sail!
    As for the government and the people isn’t that a dichotomy? I think the Doctors should work 8 days a week, like the Beatles song… I found you over at Danny’s Meet & Greet, nice to visit you! Great post!! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The British government is currently under a false illusion that problems can be solved by simply changing reporting and organisational structures. Examples are Police Services (Police and Crime Commissioners), Local Government (Elected Mayors), The NHS (constant reorganisation), Education (Academy Schools). They may never realise that re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic did not compensate for bad management.

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. I have 700 posts to read, but I’m not reading any of them except this one. I was so disappointed when they said no. I bust a gut when I first heard “Boaty McBoatface” on the news. It still cracks me up. ahahahahahahaha

    Liked by 1 person

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