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.

Updates on tea and medical bureaucracy

I get some fantastic comments on this blog and a few of them just have to break out of the comment section. So I’m going to pick up on four of them, two about tea and two about medical bureaucracy.

Tea

If you’re American, you think I already wrote more about tea than is either intellectually or physically possible. But I live in Britain. Tea is the binding force that holds the nation together, and let me tell you it’s looking a little shaky lately, what with Scotland having held a referendum on whether to leave the union and, far more shockingly, so many kids these days getting their caffeine from energy drinks instead of a respectable source like tea. Not to mention the number of tea drinkers allowing themselves to be seduced by fancy coffee and if that isn’t enough the possibility that Scotland will hold another referendum in the (less than immediate) future.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: fall berries. I'm not even sure what they are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fall berries. I’m not sure what they are but I don’t recommend tasting them.

And I’m not sure how the Welsh feel about referendums and secession. Or even whether some purist is going to tell me that the plural is referenda.

So, yeah. We need our tea. And we need to make it right. Which brings me to the point—and yes, there is one. Or two actually. You only had to wait.

J. tells me (and this was in person, not in a blog comment, which is why she’s going by an initial; the tradition may be silly but at least I’m consistent) that I ignored the role of teapots in my last tea post. Sure, I mentioned them, but you can’t make a nice cup of tea, J. says, unless you make it in a pot. Actually, she probably said “a proper cup of tea,” but I was listening to the sense, not the words, sadly. The sense was this: Make it in a cup and it just doesn’t come out right. Even if you only make a single cup, you need to make it in the pot and then pour it into the cup.

Why? Because it’s not a proper cup of tea otherwise, and if it’s not a proper cup of tea it’s not a nice cup of tea. And if it’s not a nice cup of tea, Scotland might just spin out into the North Sea, leaving the northern edge of England a ragged tear (pronounced tare; people may or may not weep about this, but it’s not what we’re talking about) across the land.

That’s not intended, by the way, as a comment on whether Scottish independence is a good idea. I could argue both sides of the proposition with equal passion. But the spinning into the North Sea? That’s just, you know, a fact.

Oh, and the pot has to be warm. Because the tea will brew better.

J.’s of the bone china school of tea drinking. Because it tastes better that way. It doesn’t have to be a fussy little cup and saucer—a mug’s fine—but for her it has to be made of china. Me? I like a heavier mug, but I try not to argue religion with friends.

So that’s one point. And then in the comment section, helenwood wrote about a job she had long ago, working for a tea importer, pouring water over the leaves so the tasters could sip and spit. But that wasn’t what grossed her out—it was that the tea leaves scattered on the warehouse floor, and presumably walked through by one and all, ended up in teabags.

If anything’s going to convert me to leaf tea, that would do it.

Medical bureaucracies

Moving on, then, from a serious topic to the trivia of our lives, we come to what I wrote about medicine in the U.K.

Ianbcross, a doctor who’s worked in the National Health System, commented that the Choose and Book system gives patients a code so they can make an appointment with a specialist online or by phone. “If there are no appointments available,” he writes, “it is up to the hospital to find one for you. You decide whether to accept it or not. This is for routine stuff. If your doc thinks you might have cancer, you get a two week wait appointment from the hospital. Less choice for you, but as soon as they can, they fit you in. Emergencies go directly to hospital, without passing GO, of course.”

Well, this is a guy who knows the system, and his comment made me wonder if I’d misremembered my experiences and Wild Thing’s. So I did what any sane blogger would do: I took a small and unscientific survey (I’ve stolen that phrase; it’s nice, isn’t it?) and came up with the following revelation: Our local surgery (that’s a doctor’s office if you’re American) is all set up so you can use the Click and Book system, but they don’t tell you about it. If you ask to use it, they’re happy to let you use it. But if you don’t already know about it, you can’t ask. So you sit around waiting for that letter.

Unless—as happened to me recently—you get a phone call. From the wrong hospital. But never mind, it was a phone call and it came quickly.

When I acted as an advocate for our neighbor, it wasn’t about getting an appointment but about shaking loose the report from an appointment she’d already had so she could (a) find out what was wrong and (b) do something about it. The doctor had dictated the letter and there it sat, waiting to be typed. And as far as I could tell there it was going to sit and wait until pine trees grew in hell.

The practice manager and I had a leave-it-with-me conversation, and I left it with her until the end of the day, when I called back. Which reminds me to mention that the NHS has a wonderful service called PALS, which stands for Patient Advocacy SomethingWithAnL SomethingWithAnS, not (as it did when I was a kid in New York) the Police Athletic League. I called PALS just after I talked with the practice manager. I suspect it’s owed the credit for getting that letter in the mail. I heard a rumor the service’s funding is going to be cut. I hope it’s not true, because the idea that within an inevitably bureaucratic system are people whose job is to make a nuisance of themselves when things aren’t working for the patient? That’s inspired.

In another comment, Dan Antion reminded me that in the U.S. the first questions anyone medical asks are about your coverage. If you’re not American, you may need that translated: Do you have insurance? Who’s your provider? What plan are you on (secondary translation: does your insurance plan cover this procedure)? And so on. In other words, everyone talks money while you bleed onto the floor, because money is what matters. (Note to the current U.K. government: Are you sure you don’t want to rethink that whole privatization of the NHS thing?)

And if anyone in Britain thinks it’s just the NHS that has unacceptable delays, he tells the story of a friend with a life-threatening condition who needed surgery and was told she couldn’t be seen for six to eight weeks.

The thing about the NHS is that until the current round of disorganizations were introduced, it’s been a unified system, so people talk about unacceptable delays, and newspapers write about them, and word generally gets passed around and everyone’s outraged and wants something done about it, which creates pressure to actually do something. When emergency rooms keep people waiting for more than four hours, it’s considered unacceptable. In the U.S., my father was left waiting in the emergency room for, if I remember right, seventeen hours. With meningitis. At the age of ninety. And he had good insurance. We were furious, but it was business as usual and didn’t tarnish the hospital’s reputation, or the U.S. medical system’s.

Getting Organized in Britain

Clubs are a big thing in Britain. Introduce two people with an obsession in common and they’ll form a club. Introduce two people who find no meeting ground and they’ll form a Random Interests Club.

In our village, we have a camera club, a surf/lifesaving club, a table tennis (that’s ping pong) club, a tennis club, a crafts group, an allotment society, a fair-weather walking group (motto: “We’re not too proud to cancel”), a club of people over fifty who rent a bus once a month and go on day trips, the Women’s Institute (a branch of a national group), a very local women’s discussion group, an allotment society, and I’m not sure how many other clubs. Someone will let me know as soon as this goes online. Plus a proposed biking club that may or may not have taken off, and yoga and art classes. In a village of some 600 people.

Wild Thing and I were at a party last month and the talk turned to wild swimming, which is swimming outdoors, regardless of whether there’s a lifeguard or a beach or anything other than clean(ish) water.  J. said she enjoyed it. T. asked if she was going to form a club.

“Right,” J. said. “Like I need officers and a constitution to throw myself in the water.”

Semi-Relevant Photo, by Rufus Nunus

Semi-Relevant Photo, by Rufus Nunus

She had a point. Clubs get formal very quickly here. Officers get elected. Minutes get taken and are read at the start of the next meeting. Dues are set and collected. Bank accounts are set up and need signatures and countersignatures and approval and disapproval and gossip.

I’m part of a countywide group that just organized to defend the National Health Service against privatization, and we immediately elected officers, adopted a constitution, and wrote a manifesto setting out our goals. All of which are good things to do and will help keep us on track, although I tend toward more chaotic approaches myself. What tipped me over the edge was when R. suggested we might want to adopt standing orders.

Standing what? I thought that was what the regulars had at the pub. You know: You come in the door and the bartender sets your drink on the bar before you ask. But no, it’s a set of procedures: The chair will consult with the secretary about the agenda; every meeting will open with the members singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Things like that, which everyone can agree are a good idea.

We decided against standing orders, but after two meetings we are well constitutioned and manifestoed. Now all we have to do is defeat privatization and get enough funding for the NHS to do its job. It should be a cinch.