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An unheroic age: why do our politicians seem so diminished?

Are our politicians getting smaller, or is it that politics is not as big as it used to be?

Illustration: Michelle Thompson

When David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet this summer it reinforced the widely held impression that, compared to previous generations, we live in an age of political pygmies. What has happened to all the politicians of real stature – the ones we can admire even as we disagree with them?

The last of the “big beasts”, Kenneth Clarke, has finally been shuffled off the stage. William Hague, an adroit orator and serious man of letters, is also creeping towards the exit. The most intellectually ambitious member of the government, Michael Gove, finds himself shunted to the sidelines. In their place come some shiny new members of the class of 2010, of whom almost no one outside of professional politics has ever heard, and some long-standing party loyalists, whom almost no one has heard of either.

The optics are better – a few more women, some media-friendly faces, younger, fresher, more family-oriented. But no one could mistake Cameron’s new cabinet for the triumph of political substance over style.

The idea that the current generation of politicians lacks stature is not just a problem for the Tory benches: it may be even worse on the other side. When Harold Wilson resigned as prime minster and Labour leader in 1976, the candidates who lined up to replace him were Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Tony Crosland – all politicians of genuine substance and experience, with an average age of 58. They included at least three major writers and intellectuals (Jenkins, Foot and Crosland; four, if you count Benn and his diaries), and all of them had a significant “hinterland” outside of politics, in the expression popularised by Healey. By contrast, when Gordon Brown resigned as Labour leader in 2010 the candidates who lined up to replace him were Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott – all career politicians with little experience of professional life outside politics, and with an average age of 45. It is a more diverse list than that of ’76, but only because of Abbott, the candidate who came last. Without her, the average age of the four white, male, middle-class rivals was just 42. They are all serious men and serious politicians, of course, but it seems fair to say that John Campbell, the recent biographer of Roy Jenkins, is not going to be writing a life of Andy Burnham any time soon.

Are our politicians getting smaller, or is it that politics is not as big as it used to be? We need to be careful about assuming that the present era is unique in its view that the big beasts have all gone missing. During the 1920s and 1930s it was also commonplace to complain that politics had been taken over by placemen and apparatchiks at the expense of the politicians of true substance. After all, theirs was only a generation away from the age of Gladstone and Salisbury: who was Stanley Baldwin to compare with that?

The dominant political figure of the time, Lloyd George, had been frozen out by men he would once have had for breakfast. One of the running jokes in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930, is that the bright young things can no longer remember who is prime minister because the various candidates are so hard to tell apart. Is it Sir James Brown or is it the Rt Hon Mr Outrage? And does it matter when both men are such glaring mediocrities? As Miss Runcible says when she wakes up one morning in 10 Downing Street, having no idea where she is, “Oh, dear, this really is all too bogus.”


Mavericks, managers and party machines

Yet the 1930s were hardly an age of small political issues, any more than ours is. Like now, it was a time of economic austerity at home and proliferating crises abroad. It was also an era of coalition politics, which tends to blur the lines between the parties while reinforcing the impression of a divide between the entire political class and the rest of us. (In Vile Bodies, the ex-king of Ruritania bemoans the fact that whenever he comes to England, “always there is a different Prime Minister and no one knows which is which”. He is told, “Oh, sir, that’s because of the Liberal Party.”)

Coalition politics and shifting allegiances facilitate the rise of the party managers – the politicians who know how to cobble a deal together and make it stick. It also creates space for mavericks and outsiders to rail against the entire system of compromise and fudge. Then, as now, some of the best-known political figures were on the fringes of the main parties, carving out a distinctive space for themselves with their disdain for the political operators. Where the 1930s had Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley, we have Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. All subsequent contrarians have probably imagined themselves as Churchill: the naysayer who turned out to be the ultimate politician of substance. But Churchill is very much the exception, not the rule. Doubtless Johnson would like to envisage himself as Churchill to Farage’s Mosley, but Mosley represents the far likelier model for both: noise over substance, and a flash-in-the-pan rather than a game-changer. Waiting for Churchill is a futile political pastime.

Johnson illustrates another feature of eras of managerial politics: a smaller setting often provides the best backdrop for projecting a big political personality. Like Ken Livingstone before him, Johnson has used the London mayoralty, its very limited powers notwithstanding, as a platform for what passes as thinking outside the box. It is easier to convey the impression of a fresh vision when you are railing against political constraints than when you are trying to operate within them.

Alex Salmond has proved himself the master of this particular game. He stood out from the crowd of his fellow British politicians because he offered the possibility of a new kind of politics, and indeed polity, even if it might not be workable and popular in practice. The largest political figures of the current age are often the ones operating where the real power isn’t, which gives them the room they need to flex their muscles. Sometimes, when the pictures get smaller, the stars do get bigger.

The most significant difference between the present and the 1930s, however, relates not to its political personalities but to the institutions that underpin them. What has unquestionably shrunk in recent decades is the size, scope and reach of political parties. Baldwin might have been a relatively unassuming man but no one could have mistaken him for a political lightweight. He was the boss of a party that took a huge amount of managing: the Tory party in the 1930s was itself a large, fractious and powerful beast. Equally, to master the House of Commons, as Baldwin did, was no small task. It took enormous skill and experience, because the Commons had a clear sense of its own power to make and break governments. This was the compact that Max Weber identified as lying at the heart of modern democratic politics, if it was to work. The task of mastering mass political parties and powerful representative institutions was the guarantor of substantive leadership. The parties were formidable machines, which meant that no one could control them without possessing an equivalently formidable political skillset. Weber believed that it was impossible to rise to the top of a political system such as Britain’s without having the leadership qualities needed to transcend it. Without those qualities, the system would swallow you up.

It is this compact that has now been broken. Political parties are no longer the formidable machines they once were: they are thin, fragile, hollowed-out institutions, lacking in members (they are no longer in any meaningful sense “mass” parties) and often lacking a sense of purpose. They are shells of their former selves. While the same cannot exactly be said of the House of Commons it, too, lacks much of its past heft. Consequently, the skillset needed to manage these institutions is not what it once was, either: it, too, is narrower.

Our managerial politics lacks the element of institutional mastery that was a requirement of the previous age, because the institutions themselves are less substantial. This is what breeds an ever narrower political class, because connections within that class are now more important than the ability to co-ordinate large and often conflicting interests beyond it. Politicians start younger and rise quicker now that small networks carry more weight than broader coalitions. The incentive to acquire wider experience of both politics and the world is absent because it is no longer so necessary. Experience can be trumped by insider knowledge, which is easier to acquire.

Contrarians from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson dream of measuring up to Churchill. Photo: H F Davis/Getty Images

“Not just a politician”: a retreat from the hinterlands

What has also been broken is the link between a career in politics and many of the professions and institutions that provided a training ground for political life. Trade unions, newspapers and the armed forces all once produced a steady supply of political recruits. Weber thought that these were among the best ways to learn something about politics before doing politics. He believed that varied experience of extra-political struggles was crucial in bringing substance to the political process.

But these institutions, too, are now greatly diminished in scale and scope. Public relations and breakfast television might have filled some of the gap, but it is not the same. Old-fashioned newspapers, like mass political parties, used to have to try to cover the waterfront; struggling to become a presenter on GMTV can be just as cut-throat, but it doesn’t offer the same variety of perspective. The one profession that still supplies a steady stream of politicians is the law, which has always had the greatest overlap with politics. For that reason it does not really answer the accusation that the outlook of the political class has narrowed: “He’s not just a politician – he’s a lawyer, too” is not the most resounding defence of any politician’s breadth of vision. None of the Labour leadership candidates in 1976 was a lawyer.

Just as politicians start younger, so also they seem to get out earlier. What appears to have gone missing are the politicians who move in and out of prominence in the context of a full-time political career, waiting for their chance to seize the moment. Clarke, to his credit, is hanging around because he wants to continue the fight over Europe into the next parliament and any possible referendum. But Hague will be gone, like Michael Portillo before him, seemingly burnt out by having done politics since he was a teenager. A lifetime of cosy BBC documentaries awaits. Labour’s two most experienced and popular politicians of the moment are Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson, both of whom have revealed an extensive hinterland since taking a step back from high office. Nevertheless, it’s hard to envisage a route back to the top for either of them. One of the reasons why no current politician can possibly be another Churchill is that Churchill did not reveal what he was made of until near the end of an epically long political life, after he had done everything else and failed at quite a lot of it. He did not seize his moment at the first opportunity (he failed at that, too). The other means by which Weber believed it was possible to learn how to do politics was to fail at it and to come back for more. Within a narrowed political class, with fewer entry and exit points, failure becomes less of an enabler and more like drink for an alcoholic: one is too many and a hundred is not enough.

These are some of the reasons why our politicians seem to lack stature when compared to those who went before. Yet it seems absurd to say that they are therefore bound to be lesser human beings. They still have to be smart, ruthless, adaptable and adept at a wide variety of tasks. The skillset has narrowed in many ways, but in others it has broadened. Present-day politicians require the stamina to survive a remorseless, 24-hour news cycle. They don’t have to control mass-membership political parties, but they do have to master the full panoply of modern communications technologies, most of which are primed to trip them up.

Modern news management is not as appealing to outsiders as grand oratory, but it is just as demanding for the people who have to practise it. Politicians need to be as tough as they have ever been, and in some respects even tougher. One reason the political class has narrowed is that professional politics is less fun than it used to be. It’s a lot more like hard work.


Falling standards or outdated expectations?

The present round of complaints about falling political standards is a bit like the regular lament about declining educational standards. It has become traditional around this time of year for employers to complain that, whatever the story of endlessly rising exam results (which Michael Gove, for all his efforts, has barely put a dent in), highly qualified school-leavers and graduates are often barely competent in many basic tasks. They lack the breadth and vision of earlier generations, who were educated in the round.

In fact, most of the evidence suggests that young people are smarter, broader-minded and better informed than they have ever been. With the informational resources available to them, it is hard to imagine how they could be otherwise. But, as their world has expanded, the tests to which we subject them have narrowed. Exams are more formulaic and more prosaic than they used to be, which makes them easier to pass for anyone who wants to put in the effort required.

Politics is the same. Our politicians have a wider and better-informed view of the world than any previous generation. With the resources available to them, how could it be otherwise? But the tests we require of them – electoral, presentational, managerial – are increasingly narrow. The reason we remain so attached to those tests is that we fear that without them we will lose what few reliable standards of accountability and authority remain. As in education, the challenge in politics is to find ways to test for aptitudes that better reflect the variety of 21st-century experience, without appearing to allow the candidates to set their own standards. No one has worked out how to do it yet.

At the same time, we must be careful what we wish for. It is worth remembering that the stellar cast list of Labour leadership candidates in 1976 contained many remarkable men, but no ultimately successful politicians. The Parliamentary Labour Party chose perhaps the least stellar of them – Callaghan – to be its leader, and it almost certainly chose wisely. He had the most limited hinterland, but he was the shrewdest politician and he made a pretty successful prime minster, at least for a time. Yet even he was seen off by Margaret Thatcher, who famously had almost no hinterland at all (that was what provoked Healey to coin the phrase). Intellectual breadth and literary ability are no guarantor of anything in politics – Barack Obama is proof of that. There are alternative role models out there: it would be hard, for instance, to accuse Vladimir Putin or Narendra Modi of lacking political heft. In a time of managerial politics, it can be tempting to look with envy at the decisiveness of the political strongmen as they throw their weight around. But the experience of the 1930s should be sufficient to warn against succumbing to that temptation.

In this respect, our age may be no different from any other. The most successful democratic politicians are rarely the most impressive human beings. They are often simply the ones with the greatest staying power, or the ones who happened to find themselves in the right place at the right time. It’s true that Roy Jenkins was a very impressive home secretary in the late 1960s, and Ken Clarke was likewise a strikingly adept chancellor in the mid-1990s, but this may have had as much to do with propitious circumstances as with any great political skills: it is possible that many different politicians could have made a success of those jobs at those times. The two most successful leaders in contemporary western politics are Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper, neither of whom is famous for having an extensive hinterland (Merkel likes football, Harper likes ice hockey). Both have been subject to widespread disdain for their perceived lack of broader political vision, but both have ridden out the mockery.

As Baldwin knew, if you are still standing when the others have fallen away, you are more than halfway to winning the battle of ideas. On that basis it would be rash to claim that there are no politicians of substance among the current generation. Who knows which of them will still be standing in ten or 15 years’ time? It could be George Osborne, it could be Miliband, though it’s unlikely to be both. (It is also unlikely to be Cameron, if only because he appears to lack that kind of staying power.) Whether it’s Osborne or Miliband, neither of them could then be said to lack substance. They would have passed the one political test that always matters. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of “The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present”, published by Princeton University Press (£19.95)

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in “Juncture”, the journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.


The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.


Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.


Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.


Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris