Boaty McBoatface and the failure of democracy

Knot on my watch: Ministers want a name to ‘capture the spirit of scientific endeavour’ © NERC

The people have spoken. A poll to name a £200m polar research ship has closed, and Boaty McBoatface is victorious. But the government wants a more serious name. Should it ignore the public?

‘Boaty McBoatface was too beautiful to live... Present the people with an idol, then smash it before their eyes. Soon they will learn that resistance is futile, and the state’s power is absolute.’

Perhaps the press reaction to the news that government ministers would not be naming a polar research ship ‘Boaty McBoatface’ was a little exaggerated. It was certainly doused with the same absurdist humour that won the name 124,000 votes in the first place. But the mock outrage disguised a more serious point.

Let’s back up: in March, the National Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public to help it name a new research vessel that is destined to travel to the icy tips of the Earth for important science. Its crew will study vital issues like climate change and rising sea levels. The online poll would give everyone the chance ‘to feel part of this exciting project,’ said the science minister Jo Johnson at the time.

But when the UK voted for the silliest name it could think of, he dismissed the result. He wants a name that ‘reflects the serious nature of the science’. The NERC has always reserved its right to make the final decision — so while the new name has not been announced, it is ‘unlikely’ to be the public’s choice.

Time to move on then. But in June the British people vote on a far more serious decision: whether or not to leave the European Union.

Referendums may catch on. The first UK nationwide one was in 1975, whether to stay in the EU; the second (2011) was on the electoral system; and the Scotland only vote on independence (2014) was vital for the UK. Fans of direct democracy say rejoice at this power to the people.

Yet Boaty McBoatface illustrates where this could lead: a government frustrated by results it does not want; a public angry that its voice is not heard.

Votey McVoteface

It doesn’t matter, say some. This passion is what makes direct democracy so important. Voting turnout in the UK has plunged from 84% in 1950 to just 66% in 2015. The most common reason given by non-voters is that their vote ‘will not make any difference’ — but 84% of Scots showed up for the independence poll. Referendums are a great way to get people involved in politics. The UK should use them more often.

Wrong, say others. Have we learnt nothing from the NERC? Sometimes voters make bad choices. This may not matter when it comes to naming a ship, but governing a country is far trickier, involving countless complicated decisions every day. The UK should stick to its current system: electing representatives with the time and wisdom to make those choices for everyone, with a promise that they will take it seriously. Direct democracy is just asking for trouble.

You Decide

  1. Should the NERC embrace the public’s will and name their ship Boaty McBoatface?
  2. Which system works best: direct democracy or electing representatives?


  1. In your class, suggest your own names for the new polar research ship, and then hold a vote. Was the winner a serious or silly result?
  2. Although it still elects representatives, Switzerland has a strong commitment to direct democracy. Research how the Swiss system works, and write a paragraph on whether you think it should be introduced in the UK.

Some People Say...

“Most people cannot be trusted to do the right thing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this story a bit silly?
A bit. But you, our readers, voted for it in our Choose The News feature last week, and we would never dream of ignoring your opinion. Anyway, it throws up interesting questions about whether and how politicians should listen to the will of the people, even if it goes against their own judgement. Consider this, for example: the death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1969, but its public support did not drop below 50% until March last year.
So what will Boaty McBoatface be called instead?
It is unclear. Johnson says they will decide once they have reviewed the public’s 7,000 suggestions. The second most popular name was ‘Poppy-Mai’, after a young baby with terminal cancer. The third was ‘Henry Worsley’, an explorer who died crossing the Antarctic in January.

Word Watch

Polar research ship
The ship was first announced in 2014 and will begin work in Autumn 2019. It can carry around 60 scientists and their support staff, and is capable of 60-day journeys at both poles. The British Antarctic Survey says the ship is needed because ‘the Antarctic Peninsula and the Arctic are two of the fastest warming regions of the planet, and we urgently need to understand the impact of polar ice melt’.
European Union
Britain’s referendum will be held on June 23rd 2016. Current polls slightly favour the ‘Remain’ camp, but the result far from certain.
Local referendums have been held mainly in regions relating to devolution or in local areas to local mayors; the June EU referendum is only the third nationwide one. If Britain votes to leave, it could trigger another independence vote in Scotland.
Voting turnout
Figures (for general elections) from the House of Commons Research Papers.
In a poll by Survation, around 27% gave this reason for not voting. It was the most common answer, followed by the belief that the candidates are ‘all the same’.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.