Boaty McBoatface: an update

If you live in Britain, you probably already know that the will of the people–or, more accurately, the will of 124,000 people, because there’s no such thing as a unanimous people, is there?–has been trampled by the boot of humorless bureaucracy.

And who said journalistic objectivity was dead? That opening was a model of objectivity.

If you want the back story–all in the finest tradition of balanced journalism, of course–you’ll find it here.

The new research ship will not be called the RRS Boaty McBoatface but the RRS David Attenborough. Or–no insult to Mr. Attenborough, who I like as well as I like any other TV presenter–the RRS Snore. In an effort to placate the baying public (or to faintly indicate the ability to detect a joke when in proximity to what seems to be one), one of its remotely operated subs will be called Boaty. Never mind that a sub isn’t actually a boat. Neither is a ship. Or that the public isn’t actually baying.

As long as I’m arguing for my own objectivity, let me interrupt myself to say here and now that I don’t much care what they name the ship, I just like the silliness of it all.

Someone’s already started a petition to rename the ship. When I checked it had 297 signatures. So not a mass movement at the moment, but it’s still worth a newspaper article or two.

But we’re not out of absurdity yet, because a parliamentary committee is getting ready to hear evidence from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which was behind the vote it so spectacularly lost control of. I gather it’ll be asked whether the public engagement was a triumph or a PR disaster.

Isn’t it interesting that they can’t tell the difference? And that of all the problems in this battered world, this is worth their time?

I can’t end without mentioning that NERC isn’t to blame for not choosing the run-away favorite name. That was the science minister, Jo Johnson, who seems to be invisible to parliamentary committees–a spell Harry Potter would envy if he’d chosen a career in politics. NERC’s crime was to turn public opinion loose in an uncontrolled form. I hope they don’t lose their funding for it.

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.”

Ouch.

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.

On the good ship Boaty McBoatface

The British are famous for their dry sense of humor, but not long ago they took it out for exercise and got it wet.

What am I talking about? The Natural Environment Research Council will be launching a new polar research vessel, which they say “will be the UK’s largest and most advanced research ship yet. She will allow scientists to carry out research safely and efficiently, even through the harshest of winters, in both Antarctica and the Arctic.

So far, so unfunny. But in an effort to create the illusion of public involvement, some genius launched a Name Our Ship campaign.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, the prevailing wind blows from the right. If, of course, you're facing the right way. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, the prevailing wind blows from the right. If, of course, you’re facing the right way. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Beware of media consultants bearing catchy ideas. The Research Council didn’t. Instead, they set up a web site, invited public involvement, and it all went wrong. So many people were voting that at one point the site crashed. You think that’s a success?

Nope. The top entry is Boaty McBoatface (ships’ names are italicized, in case anyone’s taking notes), and ol’ Boaty’s the reason so many people voted. Maybe the name caught something the spirit of the times or maybe there’s some more profound reason that I’m too shallow to spot.

After Boaty, you get a couple of serious names and you’ll forgive me if I skip those, right? Then we come to It’s Bloody Cold Here and Usain Boat. After that come Thanks for All the Fish (if you don’t catch the reference, you need to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; try to read around the ingrained sexism, because it’s funny in spite of the [I’d like to think] dated attitude) and What Iceberg?

Scroll down a bit and you come to my favorite, Big Metal Floaty Thingy-Thing, as well as Not the Titanic and Boat Marley and the Whalers.

Enough with trying to patch together interesting sentences. Others include:

Ship Happens

Boaty O’Boatface

Boatback Mountain

Fish ‘n’ Chips

Slippery When Wet

Do You Want Ice with That?

Science!!! (I like that one. I hear it in a high, manic, advertising voice.)

It Ain’t Half Cold Mum

ColdTrouser

Aunt Arctica

Float Like a Butterfly (for anyone who’s not old enough to remember, that’s a Muhammad Ali reference)

Big Ship Innit (in case you’re not British, innit translates to isn’t it) and

Bbrrrrrrr (with, yes, two B’s)

At this point, I was reading names that had thirty or so votes and I lost the will to scroll any further. By way of comparison, Boaty McBoatface had 76,470 votes. The next most popular ones were serious, and they had around 7,000 and 5,000. It’s Bloody Cold Here also had some 5,000 and no apostrophe. I added one. I had to. I trust someone will add it officially if the entry wins. Unless either maritime safety or the law of the sea forbids apostrophes.

After Boaty crashed the website, the Natural Environment Research Council announced that the vote is only advisory and they’ll make the final decision themselves, thank you very much. But you kind of knew that, didn’t you?

So there you have the British sense of humor. You thought I meant the names, right? I don’t. I’m talking about public consultation. Bureaucrats just love consulting the public.So much so that when I had to decide what category to file this under, Traditions won out. What could be more traditional than involving and then ignoring the public?