For love of Wendy and their children

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IT WAS a phrase first used by a Conservative minister to disguise the real reason for his departure from government and as it became evermore popular, the idea that male politicians "stepped down to spend more time with their family" became a euphemism.

More recently, however, politicians such as the former Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor have stepped down from politics and genuinely spent time with their children.

Yesterday, saw a new variation on the theme, with the announcement that Brian Ashcroft, Wendy Alexander's husband, is to step down from his academic post to spend more time with their twins.

Prof Ashcroft's decision, announced yesterday, will allow Ms Alexander to spend more of her time on the onerous task of leading Labour in opposition. Yesterday, Prof Ashcroft, who is to step down as director of the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, was modestly refuting the idea that he was a model new man.

He pointed out that he will still be teaching part-time at the university and will continue some academic research.

Yet his decision, at the age of 60, to step back from full-time work to spend more time with his family and allow his wife to concentrate on her career is in line with a growing trend among what equal opportunities campaigners called "21st-century man".

Prof Ashcroft, who married Ms Alexander in December 2003, told The Scotsman: "I am 60 and have been director of the Institute for ten years and policy director for seven years. That meant a high work load. I am at the time of my life when I would like more flexibility. My wife is just about to become the leader of the Scottish parliamentary Labour group, which is a very demanding role."

He added that their age difference came into it when making the decision about caring for 18-month-old Caitlin and Michael. "I am 60 and she is only 44 and so it seemed the right thing to do in being prepared to give her more support," he said.

"In Wendy's job, there is going to be a lot of pressure on her and that backwashes on me. This is what I want to do and I am excited about doing it.

"I am still being re-engaged on a part-time basis. I will do some teaching, some research and my own projects as well as supporting Wendy and looking after the kids.

Asked if that made him a "new man", Prof Ashcroft - who has a 24-year-old daughter from his previous marriage as well as a 26-year-old step-daughter - joked: "Given my age, I am a pretty old man.

"But I think that being able to spend more time with the twins will be good and I will get a lot out of it and, hopefully, they will benefit too."

In a recent interview, Ms Alexander said of her husband: "He's hugely supportive and a great father. The children are lucky to have him."

The couple, who have a nanny for four days of the week, live in the West End of Glasgow.

Prof Ashcroft is planning to spend around a third of his time teaching, a third of his time on his own work and the rest of the time looking after their children.

This is thought to be the first example of the husband of a high-profile politician taking such a step.

However, it is not unprecedented in public life in Scotland. Elish Angiolini, the new Lord Advocate, managed to pursue her career because her husband, a former hairdresser, opted to remain at home with their children.

Kim Swales, who has taken over as the director of the Allander institute, last night said that his academic colleagues understood Prof Ashcroft's dection. However, Prof Swales joked: "He is a very brave man; I'm not sure I would do this. We wish him and his family well for the future."

Last night, a spokesman for HomeDads, an organisation set up to support fathers who stay at home, welcomed the development. Gary Northeast who, like Prof Ashcroft and Ms Alexander, is the parent of twins, said: "Good for him."

Mr Northeast, 53, who is 13 years older than his wife, Marilyn, added: "It is definitely a good thing for fathers to have a more active role in bringing up their children."

He added that the fact that Ms Alexander and Prof Ashcroft were such a high-profile couple might help more men to decide to spend more time at home with their children.

Last night, Ms Alexander declined to comment on her husband's decision, which the couple are said to have been discussing for several months since she first thought of standing to succeed Jack McConnell as leader of Scottish Labour.

• THE government cannot say for sure how many men stay at home, full-time or part-time, to look after their children.

The Office of National Statistics only asks women if they stay at home with children, not men., an organisation set up to support fathers who look after their children, estimates that there are roughly 200,000 men in this position in the UK.

If the proportion is similar in Scotland, that would mean that there are around 20,000 homedads north of the Border. HomeDad believes the number of fathers staying at home has doubled since 1993.

According to the organisation, the rise in the number of "homedads" srepresents "a small, but significant change in British family life". Over the same period, they say, the number of stay-at-home mothers has fallen by almost a quarter.

A survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission has also found that 21st century fathers spend more time with their new children.

But the EOC say financial barriers prevent many low-income families from sharing care.

Over three-quarters of fathers want to be more involved in the care of their children. More than four in five fathers from low-income groups would like to take up a proportion of paid maternity leave in the place of their partner, compared to three in five from high-income groups.