To give him his full name, it was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed Cunctator, “the delayer”, and he was a Roman statesman and general who lived around 280-203 B.C. His masterful delaying tactics during the second Punic War worked well against Hannibal’s dreaded forces; in fact they were the earliest known form of guerrilla warfare. This makes him sound quite a fearsome character, yet his surviving statue shows a handsome, gentle looking young man, holding his chin with one hand while presumably pondering what to delay next; contemporary records describe him as being mild mannered and slow-spoken, despite holding huge power.
Now before you begin to wonder what on earth this noble character of 2200 years ago has got to do with us here and now, let me admit that his monumental lack of urgency has made him a living presence for me, unfortunately in a totally negative way. Almost daily some news item sheds light on an urgent problem affecting us all, together with a suggested official solution to be introduced – some time in the future. The latest example of this concerns the alarming obesity epidemic spreading in this country. According to official figures, one in five children arrive in primary school being obese or overweight, and – worse still – one in three leave primary school in that condition. The serious health risks of obesity are well known; it is a contributory factor to all major diseases from heart disease to cancer, and is therefore the No.1. candidate on the list of preventable baddies.
Prevention immediately becomes a practical task if we contemplate the dietary disaster that makes the nation fat, the evil effect of the Junk Food Industry that turns out nutritionally empty but calorie-rich rubbish, made tasty and tempting by the galaxy of chemicals politely known as “food cosmetics”. Advertising brainwashes the public to buy and eat the stuff; only a few British schools have recently begun to teach children about healthy eating.
But at last our decision-makers have woken up to what’s going on around the nation’s expanding waistline and seem to be shuffling into action. According to a recent announcement, the relevant Government department has instructed food manufacturers to cut calories by 20% – by 2024. To do this, we are told, would slash costs to the NHS by £45 billion and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths. Terrific – but for Heaven’s sake, why wait for six years to hit the target? Why this desperate lack of urgency that would make Quintus the Delayer smile with happy recognition? Surely this timetable won’t inspire food manufacturers to start improving their output in a hurry?
Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in 1955, states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if I were a food manufacturer and knew that I had six years to make my calorie-rich junk product healthier, I wouldn’t do a thing for five years or so. After all, according to another “law” by some anonymous sage , “If you wait until the last minute, the job only takes a minute to do.”
The art of delaying has a language of its own, lavishly used in official communications. “At the earliest opportunity”, “in the foreseeable future” and suchlike should act as alarm bells, warning us that again there is no hurry and therefore no fast result involved. Of course there is no reason why we as individuals shouldn’t become awkward and try to speed up events. I’ve done it many times, failed in 40%. succeeded in 30% and at least got things moving in the remainder.
And, being of an impatient disposition – sorry, Quintus the charming Cunctator- I’ll continue to fight unnecessary delays wherever they crop up. There will be plenty left for others to cope with.