I was trapped in the unfamiliar clutches of the Westminster village when the Milburn story broke. I dislike the Palace of Westminster. It is nothing particular to the Houses of Parliament. It just that any parliamentary setting takes me back to those dreary days as a young reporter, dispatched to cover the Irish Dail or the High Court. Such establishments are full of the self-obsessed, cliquish and tedious, carried along on clouds of deference and spite. And that is just the journalists.
The Alan Milburn story defied every rule of the game. A high-flying minister abandons his post to become a human being once more. The Daily Mail called it the "The Great Milburn Mystery". The word "mystery" appears again in bold type several pages in. Curious, you might think, for a newspaper so ardently devoted to the cause of family values. The rest of the press was hardly any different. Few could understand why any sane man would want to leave behind the delights of days locked in combat with the Chancellor, nights drowning in a sea of official papers, and days snatched here and there with his far-away family. It was more than a reasonable suspicion of that old euphemism "family reasons". We appear congenitally incapable of believing that family might be more important than work.
At which point I raise a guilty hand and go to the top of the class. Before launching an assault on society, I ought to describe my own mad week. It began with two reckless promises. Two producer friends both approached with a request to help out on projects. Keeping the habit of a lifetime I said yes. Write two films at the same time? No problem. Oh, and throw in a bit of research for a new book while you're at it. And half a day helping to promote the BBC's new book on the war against Iraq (the reason for my visit to Westminster). Plus those expenses from the Iraq war that I've been promising to send to the ever patient accounts people, and countless mobile phone calls and e-mails.
The upshot was a day that began crouched over a laptop at 6am and finished in the same position around midnight. In between there were gallops from one edit suite in west London to another edit suite slightly further away. I did manage to get to the parent/teacher meeting and to do one school pick-up, but I wouldn't win any awards for involved fatherhood over the past seven days.
In the unlikely event that you are tempted towards pity, or even a flicker of compassion, forget it. Stamp on that instinct. All of the foregoing was my own dumb fault. It was a week I constructed. It wasn't being forced on me by anybody. It was an unusually bad week. Most of the time I manage a bit better on the "balance" stakes. But its left me feeling ragged and very inadequate on the parental ratings front.
At this point I expect most working mothers reading this column to cut it out and tear it up into little pieces. Diddums, they might say to my moaning. After all, I have a wife who, despite being knee-deep in a very complex MA thesis, manages to keep the house going and get an energetic seven-year-old out the door to school every morning. But you will understand if I say that Alan Milburn's resignation is no mystery to me. Mystery? The mystery is that Cabinet resignations for "family" reasons aren't a weekly occurrence. Most married Cabinet ministers, senior businessmen and busy men of every description survive in their jobs because women allow them to; even with good childcare men continue to depend on women to juggle the whole show. I realise this is a startlingly unoriginal observation but I do need reminding in this most dreadful of working weeks.
Why do men enslave themselves in this way? Why must their families suffer a steadily diminishing presence? Part of it is the 21st-century corporate culture. After the dotcom collapses of the past few years, we were supposed to have entered the era of coffee and rose smelling. Burnt-out managers were heading for small villages to practise yoga, or at the very least taking jobs that paid a lot less but allowed more space for life. But statistics regularly show a large majority of men working well over the recommended 48-hour week. According to a recent study, one in four IT workers regularly work more than 60 hours a week.
I have friends in the City who barely glimpse their children during the working week. Gone before breakfast, home after story time. The weekend is spent in a state of beleaguered exhaustion. The advent of e-mail and mobile phones has removed the last separation between our private and working lives. When I ask my friends in business why they do it, the answer always has to do with wanting to make the most of the working time they've got (ie if they don't make the money now they'll be too old in a few years time). Of course it is also about insecurity, the constant backward glance at the younger man or woman coming up the straight.
By the time they get to retirement the children are staring at a stranger; their wives are leading lives of their own; the money is a meagre consolation. As a priest put it at my sister's wedding a few years ago: "I've sat at the bedsides of many dying men and I never met one who wished he'd spent more time at the office."
From the moment we step into the workplace we learn that work is worth, that our position in the working world is the true determinant of our value. Forget the part of you that is a son, father, husband, lover or the man who loves books, music, sport or whatever. Everybody we meet will be seen through this grotesquely narrow prism. In most workplaces the unions have been so neutered they barely squeak a protest. Not that today's ambitious executives would want the help of a shop steward; far better to burn out and crash than fade away gracefully.
But there's a big difference between understanding how this mess has come about, and justifying our addiction to work. Surely we're past the stage of blaming the bosses alone for the long hours and the interrupted "quality time". If you don't want to see your family life fractured then say so; if you see your identity as something more precious and complex than that of an employee, then act on that belief. Even better if you are an executive with beleaguered staff. Set an example by putting your real life first.
I don't want to be part of that madness. But changing the habits of a lifetime is scary. And it's a lot easier for me, you might say. I don't have people pressuring me to work all the hours God sends. My past week of madness was almost entirely self-created. But I do know that accepting the status quo is a form of collective madness - a madness made of millions of individual choices. Which is why I think Alan Milburn has made the boldest political statement of his career by resigning to "spend more time with the family". The reform of the NHS, even leading the Labour Party in the future, are things any relatively competent politician can do. But being a devoted husband and a good father - now that is the challenge of a lifetime. He has set the rest of us a shining example.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content