David Cameron and Tony Abbott at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Mark Nolan/Reuters
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The rise of the Anglosphere: how the right dreamed up a new conservative world order

The Anglosphere has its roots in the Commonwealth tradition. But today's global world has forged a powerful unofficial alliance.

During what has been an unusually turbulent period in British politics, one of the most important and potentially enduring shifts in the mindset of those at the apex of the political system has received far less attention than it merits. This concerns the striking re-emergence on the political right of the dream of an entirely different geo­political and economic future for the United Kingdom, one that claims to relocate it in the historical trajectory and distinctive values that once made Britain great.

Among a growing number of conservative-inclined Eurosceptics, the long-standing ambition of an alliance made up of some of the leading English-speaking countries spread across the world has quietly moved from marginal curiosity to a position of respectability. The idea of the “Anglosphere” – and the policies and strategies pursued by some of the political leaders of its constituent countries – has become a source of increasing, almost magnetic influence on British conservatives. And it may well provide the governing intellectual framework for the Eurosceptic campaign to quit the European Union in a post-election referendum.

The concept of an Anglosphere reflects the long-held belief that Britain’s best interests lie in forging closer relationships (and perhaps even some kind of institutionalised alliance) with those countries that have broadly similar political structures and systems; and that also tend to cherish the values of parliamentary government, individual liberty, the rule of law and the free market. The membership list of this club varies quite considerably depending on the author but at its core are the English-speaking “Five Eyes” countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Each of these was once a British colony and can readily be situated within an imaginary horizon of a group of countries united by a shared political and economic culture, nourished from the roots of British parliamentary institutions, economic liberalism and Protestantism.

But what gives the concept of the Anglosphere striking modern-day appeal for conservatives and dispels any lingering cold-war revanchist overtones is that it frames an account of how an independent UK can prosper in a global economy dominated by the rise of Asia. Liberated from the EU and allied with the rest of the Anglosphere, the argument runs, Britain could reinvent its open trading heritage, harnessing its colonial history to integrate itself into the new global economy of the Asian century.

Here are the seeds of a powerful alternative argument against the pro-European, centrist view of globalisation that has dominated the mainstream of British politics – and the Labour Party, above all – for the past quarter of a century. Importantly, this position resists a retreat to the hinterland of economic nationalism and instead constructs a new account of free-market geopolitical co-operation, anchored in the institutional alliance of the Anglosphere. In the title of an influential Conservative Free Enterprise Group pamphlet, it is Britannia Unchained.

The Britannia Unchained has deep roots in the Commonwealth tradition, which emerged as a shared point of reference after the Second World War. As Winston Churchill is said to have shouted at Charles de Gaulle before the D-Day landings, “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea!” – a remark later echoed by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at the 1962 Labour party conference, when he argued that Britain would become a mere “province” in a federal Europe, bringing to an end “a thousand years of history”.

Charles de Gaulle (R) awards Sir Winston Churchill la Croix de Liberation at the Hotel Matignon in Paris 06 October 1958. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

During the debates about membership of the European Common Market in the early 1970s, many opponents invoked the Commonwealth as an alternative trading partner and source of influence and as a community towards which Britain retained distinct obligations. Yet, by this time, arguments about Europe were being conducted against the background of a much deeper set of concerns about the prospects for the UK. Fear of the implications of Britain remaining outside the Common Market outweighed the sentimental and economic arguments mounted for the Commonwealth.

This post-imperial tradition may have weakened during these years but the dream of an Anglophone future for Britain refused to die. Instead, it migrated to the outskirts of conservative politics and re-emerged as an important feature of some of the libertarian currents that began to percolate into mainstream conservatism in the mid-to-late 1970s. In these quarters, American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”.

In this climate, as Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have shown, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.

In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.

Thatcher’s endorsement ushered in a period of growing respectability for this notion. Soon, it was projected to a much wider set of publics by several prominent intellectuals. In his 2003 book Empire, for example, the historian Niall Ferguson concluded that the liberal values associated with the British empire remained the lodestar for democrats around the world. For him, the principles of free trade, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy constituted the positive aspects of its legacy.

The Anglosphere: countries where the first language is English are in dark blue; countries with a substantial knowledge of the language, dating back to the British Empire, in light blue. 

In these and other high-profile arguments, a clear moral emerged: the unique political and economic inheritance of Britain made the decision to enter a union of European nations an error of epic proportions. The very survival of the values of the Anglosphere had been put into jeopardy. As the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it more recently: “As the sun sets on the Anglosphere imperium, we understand with sudden clarity what it is that we stand to lose.”

For the most part, however, the idea of the Anglosphere remained on the margins in political circles until the establishment of the coalition government in 2010, since which time it has steadily forced its way into the political conversation. Speaking during an official visit to Australia in 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, argued for closer ties between Britain and Australia and made reference to one of the most important, enduring political expressions of the link between them – the close co-operation enjoyed by their intelligence services and the experience of finding much common cause in relation to the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past few years, other leading Tories have, in different ways, identified themselves with this idea, including David Willetts, John Redwood, Norman Lamont, Liam Fox and Michael Howard. During his own trip to Australia in 2013, Boris Johnson argued that when we joined the Common Market, we in effect “betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand”.

Framing the decision to join the fledgling EU as an act of “betrayal” was an eye-catching rhetorical flourish, even by Johnson’s standards. Europe became the default option, he continued, “when the establishment was defeatist, declinist and obsessed with the idea that we were being left out of the most powerful economic club in the world”.

Notions of an organised alliance of any kind remain fanciful in the extreme. Yet the underlying impatience with a European future for the UK and a deep desire to get back to the exceptionalism that characterised Britain’s self-image in earlier times underpin the renewal of this dream. The past 70 years have generated profound and mostly unanswered questions in British politics about how a state that once saw itself as special and exemplary might make sense of its waning geopolitical position and declining economic strength.

For advocates of the Anglosphere, these painful realities and the existential angst associated with them can, it seems, be defied. Individualism, liberty and the rule of law are the normative cornerstones of this vision and are typically framed in stark contrast to the corporatist, bureaucratic and authoritarian political cultures that are widely held to prevail on the European continent.

The appeal of this idea is not just a reflection of growing disillusionment with Europe. For many, the rise of China, the increasing threat of radical Islam and the uncertainties of the global economy all make the question of locating political allies and sympathetic states much more imperative for the UK. The future of the west, some argue, may be contingent upon a closer coalescence of the Anglosphere countries.

And the European project is now often condemned as fundamentally out of kilter with the dynamics and leading technologies of the world we inhabit. Eurosceptics increasingly view Europe as an old, declining continent, riddled with regulation and saddled with debt. The Anglosphere sustains a restless desire to find a new, outward-facing, globally rooted destiny for the UK. And this vision is offered in stark contrast to the more insular ethos and instincts of the right-wing populism associated above all with Ukip.

This is an important, growing source of tension within the Conservative Party and beyond and is echoed across the political spectrum. These differences of national vision and understanding now run deep in British politics and are contributing significantly to the pressures bearing down on the unity of the two main parties. Both the outward-facing ambitions of the Anglosphere and the more inward-looking, anti-metropolitan politics of Ukip are rooted in national traditions. But for advocates of the first of these world-views, the Englishness to which they lay claim is steeped in images of the intrepid, entrepreneurial peoples of a world island, a seafaring nation committed to finding partners and acquiring influence across the globe.

Indeed, this liberal, internationalist idea of Britain was once much more prominent and mainstream than the kind of insularity and pessimism that Ukip espouses. Its optimism and openness to the world are what gives it political appeal for Eurosceptics who are anxious to contest the argument about what is best for Britain’s future and not get boxed into a
political retreat to a fading past.

The Anglosphere evokes a way of telling the national story and understanding Britain’s place in the world and connects contemporaries to forms of patriotic sentiment that have largely fallen out of favour in the past few decades. But while the growing unpopularity of the EU has made the Anglosphere a more important alternative ideal, at least among southern English Tories, some profound obstacles to the realisation of this dream have yet to be addressed.

The US, including many leading Republicans, remains convinced that the UK should stay in the EU. States such as Australia and New Zealand are all involved in managing their growing orientation to Asia, while anti-monarchist republican sentiment periodically animates their politics. Above all, there are important class interests lined up against Brexit, among them major multinational corporations trading in Europe and the City of London.

While the unfeasible nature of any kind of formal alliance among these countries is clear, there is a real growth in interest on the political right in the notion of the Anglosphere as an alternative political ideal and as a source of ideas – about policy, strategy and leadership. We may not be joining an alliance with Canada or Australia any time soon but our politics may be increasingly influenced by the political values and experiences of both.

The electoral successes of Stephen Harper in Canada, John Key in New Zealand and Tony Abbott in Australia have given British conservatives concrete examples of right-wing leaders to emulate. And with the rising appeal of the Anglosphere as a counterweight to Europe, there is an increasing appetite to draw lessons from these conservative cousins, rather than to look across the Channel to centrist Christian democrats. Very little is written in the UK conservative press and blogosphere about Angela Merkel’s model of leadership, despite the hegemonic status she has achieved. Instead, Anglosphere conservatives look towards those they consider to be muscular and authentically right-wing leaders, such as Harper and Abbott.

Harper is a particular source of attraction: he united a deeply divided right and proceeded to defeat his opponents, turning a precarious minority government into one with a governing majority. He is fiscally conservative, a climate sceptic and ruthless at using the office of prime minister to pursue a radical agenda without reaching into the middle ground of politics. Indeed, he has sought to weaken and then dismantle the institutions and political pillars that formed the progressive heart of the 20th-century Canadian state, bypassing public servants, marginalising parliament, challenging the courts and attacking liberal civil society organisations.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Harper’s premiership is almost the complete antithesis of a centrist, inclusive modernisation project of the kind that David Cameron envisaged before the 2010 election. But its remarkable run of electoral success has given many British conservatives food for thought.

It is therefore through what political science terms “policy transfer” and the informal exchange of ideas and people that the Anglosphere is coming to political prominence, rather than the various quixotic schemes for institutionalisation that have been advanced from time to time. Given that the European question will become one of the dominant issues in British politics, whatever the outcome of the general election in May, the Anglosphere idea will play an even bigger role as a beacon for an alternative, globally conceived national project to that which is associated with an apparently sclerotic EU. The figures who have come to prominence on the Anglophone right, such as Harper and Abbott, offer intriguing models for possible leadership contenders in the Conservative Party. No wonder Boris has been busy in Australia.

The rise of the Anglosphere is both a barometer and a source of deepening disagreement on the right about the UK’s geopolitical and economic development. Yet the temptation for those on the centre left to rejoice in these kinds of disagreements ought to be set aside. For while parts of the right have assembled an ambitious and optimistic project that has the capacity to appeal to a range of social groups, the left shows few signs of forging a national project of its own that might guide it through the economic and territorial turbulence ahead.

The left has largely shed its Euroscepticism but has yet to find arguments for staying in the EU that are anything other than technocratic or tactical. With a few exceptions, it is silent on how the European project can be rescued from the historical cul-de-sac of deflation and post-democratic governance associated with Brussels and Berlin and even less certain about how membership of a reformed EU can express a bigger, compelling and value-laden vision of Britain’s future in the world.

The Anglosphere is far from being just a quirky, nostalgic idea. It is at the heart of a re-emerging political world-view. Understanding its power, reach and history is imperative for a centre left that needs a more clearly defined strategic ambition and sense of political direction if it is to do more than survive buffeting by the storms.

Michael Kenny is the director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English