On the snail’s trail

Nearly 400 years ago, an Italian named Francesco d’Angelita
wrote a book about snails in which he claimed there was much that
humans could learn from his subject. The snail could teach us, he
said that being fast made people “inconsiderate and foolish”.
Slowness, meaning prudence and solemnity, was an essential virtue,
reflecting the “wit of the philosopher and the moderation of the
authoritative governor”.

More recently, the snail has been adopted as the logo of the
“slow food movement”. This was founded in 1986 to promote food that
is produced with care, prepared with pleasure and eaten at leisure.
It was seen as a corrective to the quick-fix, profit-driven ethos
of fast food.

I have mixed feelings about this. There is nothing better than
eating someone else’s slow food – whether it is in an Italian
osteria or in a friend’s kitchen. But the last thing a busy working
parent needs is to feel guilty about not spending enough time
cooking at the end of the day. I note that a couple of Danish
artists have been staging a fight-back by giving away 1,000
original artworks in London, each one bearing the slogan “Keep life
complicated!” This followed a fly-posting campaign in Copenhagen,
in which they urged people to “Overbook your calendar!” and “Stress
up!”. Their point is to acknowledge and celebrate the fast and
furious nature of modern life.

I would agree with the Danes that there is little point in
yearning for the gentle pace of life of the “good old days”.
However, just as we are learning that greater wealth does not
necessarily bring more happiness, so we may reflect that doing
things faster does not necessarily mean they will be done

Take politics, for instance. Some modern governments, including
our own, are doing for political decision-making what McDonald’s
has done for the family meal. You want a policy? Here it is! A new
national programme, a new local scheme, a new restructuring of
services – to end social exclusion, to improve schools, to cut
hospital waiting times…zap, zap, zap. Not just in one
neighbourhood, but right across the country! And so it has gone on
since 1997, with initiatives leaping out like greyhounds from a
trap. The race is “modernisation”; the prizes are “quick wins”.

It is all very admirable in one sense. No one wants a government
that sits on its hands, especially when there is so much to do. But
is fast politics getting us anywhere we want to be?

Take, for example, the move to integrate children’s services.
Local authorities are appointing new directors to take charge of
children and families, child protection, the care system, family
support and children’s centres, as well as taking nominal
responsibility for all schools and colleges in their patch. But how
many individuals yet have the right mix of skills and experience to
take on this integrated role? Is there a danger that the initiative
is being rushed into place before there has been time to develop
the human resources capable of putting it into practice

Similarly, Sure Start is being morphed into a different scheme,
leaving no time for its £20m evaluation to discover whether or
not the scheme as originally devised was effective.

Nowhere has fast politics been more in evidence than in the
health sector. Clinicians, managers and patients have been buffeted
by eight years of continuous change, as new structures, new
targets, even new philosophies come crashing through the system at

A charitable interpretation would have it that ministers just
never give up trying to do things better. But suppose they took a
lesson from the humble mollusc. Francesco d’Angelita said the
snail’s pace reflected “the moderation of the authoritative
governor”. Not many of us would recognise that as a description of
the people who govern us today.

So with prudence, if not solemnity, I suggest a “slow politics
movement” as a corrective to the hyperactive, media-driven ethos of
21st century government. Taking time to develop and implement a
policy might make it easier to learn from what has happened in the
past. It might ensure that everyone involved understands why change
is needed and can contribute their ideas and experience. It might
give practitioners an opportunity to build the necessary knowledge
and skills. We might even enjoy better results in the longer

Anna Coote is head of engaging patients at the
Healthcare Commission. She is writing in a personal capacity.

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