Ok, I'm back.
I found out about 10 days ago that someone to whom I am closely related is seriously ill. There are various other factors which make the situation rather complicated. I don't intend to say anymore about it on here, other than to offer it up as an explanation as to why I wasn't in such a tolerant mood as usual. I didn't see why I should offer myself up in the absence of higher-profile politicians on the blogosphere as a sacrificial lamb to receive the torrent of abuse for which some pseudonymous bloggers were no doubt sharpening their green-ink-stained quills in preparation. (And thanks for the delightful comments left in my absence, none of which have made it past moderation).
If this was SATC, we would now cut to a shot of me sitting at my ancient typewriter, with a voiceover saying: This made me think... "Are we human, or are we politician?" Cue theme of this week's episode.
For those of us who are public figures, even in a fairly modest way, and can't hide behind pseudonyms, blogging presents something of a dilemma. What to put into the public domain, and what to keep under wraps? (I'd suggest Nadine Dorries' online anecdote about dropping her underwear in the gym car park probably falls into the latter category).
On the one hand, people want to see their politicians as human. On the other, we're entitled to a private life. And yes, I know, some from the 'I'm paying your wages' school would dispute that.
My family and upbringing were undoubtedly the biggest single formative influence on my politics. All of human life is there, as they say. (It's a big family!) And sometimes it's difficult to explain where you're coming from as a politician without reference to your background, either to convey a particular empathy or to defend yourself when people make certain assumptions. There are shorthand methods some MPs adopt: 'I'm still the only person in my family to have had a university education' is always useful. Or 'I'm from Luton'. (There are no posh people in Luton).
There are almost certainly MPs in this current parliament who have been raped, had abortions and miscarriages, been the victims of domestic violence, or were sexually abused as children. Mo Mowlam was famously the daughter of an alcoholic parent, and talked about it her later years as a politician. There are some with family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or have died from drug abuse (Ian McCartney's son, for example), or have mental health issues. There will be some who have survived serious illnesses, or have children with serious disabilities.
Each politician should be entitled to make their own decision as to how much of this they choose to reveal, or conceal. Personal anecdote can be very powerful; I still remember a speech Dari Taylor made in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill debate, where she talked about her own infertility and the hope that this legislation offered to other women in her situation.
The dangers of revealing details of one's personal life are, however, manifold. Firstly, once a label is publicly-attached, it can be difficult to remove it. Neil Tennant always say that the reason he didn't choose to out himself in the music press was because he didn't want to be pigeon-holed in the press as 'gay pop star Neil Tennant'. True enough, as soon as he did choose to tell people he was gay, that's exactly what happened.
Secondly, there's the creaking sound of floodgates being opened... once you've allowed yourself to be pictured in the pages of Hello magazine boasting about your wonderful marriage, you're fair game for the paparazzi when it all goes horribly wrong and you're seen walking through the streets with a 'blotchy face' ((c) Daily Mail) and slept-in clothes. So it's best to keep off the topic altogether.
Thirdly, there's the risk of being seen to exploit the issue for personal gain, as we've seen with accusations levelled at David Cameron and others in the past. David Davis' single parent childhood formed an integral part of his pitch for the Tory leadership. Alan Johnson wouldn't be Alan Johnson if we didn't know what we know of his background. But where do you draw the line?
And finally, it's not just about you. (Some of the more ego-driven politicians may find this a hard concept to grasp, mentioning no names.) If you start talking about your family, you are putting the spotlight on people who may well not want to be subjected to its glare. Maybe a politician feels quite comfortable talking about his feckless, philandering father when discussing the issue of men taking equal responsibility for raising their children... but how does his mother feel about it? Sometimes it's easy to forget that you've got an audience, or that what you say is being recorded for posterity. It's important to keep this in mind.
I tend to operate on the basis of no names, no pack drill. I've got enough sisters (five) and enough nieces and nephews (thirteen, plus a few 'step' ones) to be able to tell the occasional anecdote without embarrassing anyone. Sometimes I will use phrases such as 'a young woman I know' or ' a friend of mine'. On more serious issues, if I did decide to 'go public' I'd probably ask the most reticent member of my family first, and they'd almost certainly say no. And that would be the end of that.