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Andrew Marr: Why the pundits got it wrong - and what the parties should do next

As the media try to make sense of the 2015 general election, Andrew Marr explains why predictions were so far off the mark.

As we try to sift the meanings of the 2015 general election, it’s worth beginning with a fundamental but far too little-discussed problem for political journalism: how the hell do we know what we think we know? What value – if any – do commentators, set apart from the professional politicians, actually bring? It’s not surprising that most of the time we commentators don’t like to talk about this. This spring, we really must.

I pick up my information from four sources, I realise, all of them suspect. The first is the politicians; during this campaign I spoke regularly to the parties, and to old friends across the political spectrum. The party HQs proved to be either deluded, or lying: I was told again and again by Labour that its ground operation was superb and its numbers, particularly in the north-west of England and the Midlands (where the party was slaughtered) were very strong indeed. The Liberal Democrats assured me that Tory talk of destroying them in the English south-west was malicious and ridiculous. (Plainly, it wasn’t.) The Tories said they were doing fine, you know, fine-ish, but never sounded hugely confident.

So much for going to the top. More useful were politicians from all sides I’ve known for years. A series of experienced Labour people sounded pretty wobbly – I should have spent more time thinking about that and less about the messages from the centre. Some Conservative MPs, notably George Osborne, seemed much more confident than Cameron HQ.

The second source, and one that dominated everybody’s day-to-day thinking, was the polling. The pollsters didn’t get everything wrong: they picked up the huge Scottish story. Then again, anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up. But they were massively out on the main story. My deep frustration is that this tilted the whole conversation about politics – the reporting, and therefore the pressure the reporting placed on the politicians. To be specific, if we had known how close the Liberal Democrats were coming to wipeout, there might have been speculation about what that would mean. Everybody ignored this. Had we known how badly Labour was doing, there would have been much more pressure on Ed Miliband over his main economic message. There wasn’t nearly enough.

My third main source was the rest of the commentariat, this time including the self-appointed commentariat of Twitter. That’s a big range of voices. But during an election campaign, people retreat into their ideological bunkers. There are some who ask pene­trating questions, keep their heads tilted sceptically, and are worth following, but by and large journalists listening to other journalists only produces an echo chamber of lazy, received opinion, big on the volume, an ear-splitting background noise.

This leads me to the final source of information, always ridiculed and yet the one that proved most accurate and that I wish I had spent more time attending to – anecdote and random conversation. That is plainly dangerous: we are all prisoners of our own geographical and class location, however much we think we are in the swim. One of the advantages of having a televised face and jug ears, however, is that people come up to you the whole time and tell you, unprompted and unstoppably, what they think. As I was doing my daily walk to the shops, or sidling off to my local for a pint of IPA, I was buttonholed again and again.

What people wanted to say, in my part of London, could be broken down into two big themes. First, they hated the idea of a minority Labour government backed by the SNP. Almost immediately that this became a leading Tory theme, I was picking it up on the street. After the first two weeks of a Tory campaign focused on the economy generally and the uselessness of Ed Miliband, and which seemed to me to have been from their point of view wasted time, plainly the Conservatives had found something that was cutting through.

The second theme was that Labour apparently “hated” the self-employed, people running or working in small businesses, and anyone who’d had any kind of success. I’m going to come back to this, but it struck me at the time. A painter and decorator, for instance, who employs half a dozen others, walked across the street to say: “I can’t vote Labour. I work bloody hard. I’m the kind of person they despise . . .” As with the anti-SNP reaction, you ignore a single comment but when you hear the same kind of thing dozens of times, you know that something is going on.

***

Now this isn’t the complete sum total of what was going on in my head during the campaign. I’ve been covering these things since 1983, and echoes of John Major in 1992 reverberated. But note that, compared to his open and confrontational street oratory back then, in among the jeering, the leaders this time were sanitised and surrounded by pre-selected audiences. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, put himself through it in Scotland; but apart from that, it seems to me that all the money spent by the broadcasters and newspapers on sending their correspondents to join Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on their bus tours was wasted. No election is just like any other. Having been around for a long time is no guarantee of wisdom.

Other sources will be more respected next time. The betting market wasn’t great – money was pouring on to Ed Miliband right at the last minute, by which time he’d already lost – but the gilt markets seemed to know what was going on. Number crunchers using historical voting data did pretty well. And intriguingly, those in the parties who had scanned postal voting returns were also in on the secret.

Finally, I’ve interviewed many dozens of politicians many times. I ought, therefore, to know where their weaknesses are – though that doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing what the public thinks. But if there is a logical problem obvious to me, presumably it is obvious to millions of ­other people. The ever more glazed and convoluted attempts by the two Eds to avoid saying that they had overspent while in office is a good example.

There was a perfectly rational way of dealing with this. They could have said: “Look, the overspending was relatively minor in historic terms and was supported by almost everybody at the time. And be very careful of describing the building of new hospitals, schools and nurseries as ‘profligate’ or ‘waste’: our alleged overspending has given Britain places where children are currently learning and their grandparents are having heart operations. It’s not like blowing too much money on your credit card in B&Q.

“At the time, none of us knew – not you, not the government, not David Cameron or George Osborne – that an obscure housing crisis in Middle America was going to bring down the entire banking system.”

They could have said that. They didn’t.

Why not? Because, had they engaged in the conversation seriously, they would have had to go on to say something like: “However, given what we know now, do we wish we had spent a little less during the good times? Of course we do.” And, true or not, they thought that the Conservative media would have translated this into: “Ed admits, ‘Yes, the crash was our fault.’”

That seems to me to have been a huge tactical mistake on the Labour side. The party should have engaged in the argument, and made its case, not unreasonable, long before the proper election campaign started. As I have written here before, by allowing the Conservatives to set that narrative they handed David Cameron a huge weapon, which he used during April and May almost every day.

There were big mistakes on the Tory side, too, I thought. I was flabbergasted when Cameron and Osborne suddenly found a minimum of £8bn, and perhaps a lot more, for the NHS right at the last minute. It seemed to me to blow a hole in their “uncosted spending commitments” attack on Labour. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter, because voters presumably thought that ­Labour would always spend and borrow more than the Tories, whatever anybody said. Still, it was a heck of a risk.

***

But the biggest issue that emerged during interviews was, as I found on the street, the SNP surge. I have been studying and writing about the Scottish National Party since I was in my twenties. I wish I had been back in Scotland much more, and earlier, but I’ve been up there quite a lot recently, working and visiting family. So I know that the SNP is not the Maoist threat Middle England cowers from. Among its new MPs are former Conservatives, business people, all types. It’s true that its new 110,000 membership contains many on the hard left who have made a lot of noise, but the party is a complex phenomenon.

Still, the “watch my lips, no deals” rebuttals by Ed Miliband were always going to be difficult. He might have ruled out a coalition and a formal confidence-and-supply arrangement, but the numbers dictated that a minority Labour government – the best he could hope for – would have to rely on SNP acquiescence at best week by week.

Now, I have no hard evidence for what follows, but I don’t believe that English ­voters’ hostility to an SNP-influenced outcome was anti-Scottish. I think it was the combination of the thought of a relatively weak government, which would have to negotiate its way through its programme, with the anti-Trident and anti-austerity messages of the SNP, that spooked much of Middle England.

Don’t forget that all the voters who do not want Trident, and were against austerity, weren’t up for grabs anyway: they were ­already committed, presumably, to Labour or the Green Party. So a Scottish National Party programme, crafted to appeal to Glasgow Govan and Dundee, didn’t go down so well with soft Tory voters and Liberal Democrats in Cirencester or the Peak District. Quelle surprise!

That, for me, was the story of this election campaign. Looking ahead, what lessons can we draw from it?

Living in London, I am very cautious about trying to predict what is going to happen in Scotland next. But the following things seem almost self-evident. First, to have any chance of revival, Scottish Labour has to separate itself from the party south of the border. It has to begin again, unionist but with its own head office; back to the party’s origins. This may not work, either. Second, in politics, winning brings new problems and winning big brings bigger new problems. Nicola Sturgeon now not only has to negotiate with somebody she never thought she’d have to deal with, and who has the authority of a big election win, she has to manage the enormous expectations of what looked like, in effect, a Scottish revolution. I couldn’t fit into her shoes in a million years; but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

As to the shattered English left, I go back first to all those conversations about Labour not being for “people like me”. Labour politics works when it is, in effect, an alliance between the bulk of people working in private companies, big and small, and those on the margins. Now, if Labour chooses to forget about people on benefits, those on poverty wages, and the huge inequities caused by a super-rich global class, then it ceases to have any purpose. But it simply can’t get itself into a position again where shopkeepers, tradesmen and all those who want to better themselves think Labour “hates” them.

I don’t suppose this was something that Ed Miliband or those around him ever set out to achieve. It was more about tone, and where they came from, and what their own instincts were. Britain is brimming with relatively affluent (or at least comfortable) non-socialists who have a strong sense of community and social altruism. They support homelessness projects run by churches, they back local campaigns, they spend spare income not on bigger cars but on Oxfam appeals. They are good people. They just happen to be outside the immediate reach of the state. Labour can sometimes give the impression that only those working in the public sector or those on benefits are virtuous and admirable. This is politically lethal.

***

Is that more important, or less important, than confronting the “Blue Labour” questions of immigration, low pay and embattled trade unionism? I don’t know – but reaching out to the majority isn’t a luxury.

So, Labour has a cultural problem to resolve. It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It is vastly more important than who the next leader is. Over the next few years, we will see, I suspect, little real sign of a Labour advance in Scotland – the defeat is so profound that it will take many years to recover – while in England boundary changes further entrench the Conservatives. Unless Labour has the courage and imagination to reform itself completely, it has no chance of recovery.

Democracy is a pendulum. Not even the biggest and most unexpected victories last; in fact, they contain the seeds of the next defeat. Yet this assumes and requires that the defeated parties learn hard lessons. The Tories’ biggest problem ahead isn’t the EU referendum. It isn’t even the relationship between London and Scotland – federal Britain is taking shape before our eyes. No, it is their relationship with big money, the global financial system that remains unstable and often incompetent. David Cameron is a more sophisticated and flexible Tory leader than many understand. But I don’t see him trying to fix that problem, and that leaves Conservatism vulnerable.

Ought Labour and the Liberal Democrats to forget their differences and try to merge? Probably not: they have different philosophies and those differences matter. But it would be a good, useful and salutary thing for both of them to contemplate the possibility. A big election defeat ought to shatter old ways of thinking. It’s important not to waste a good defeat. I have spent the past few days doing two things – sleeping and worrying about how I do my job.

Defeated politicians, as well as humbled journalists, could do worse.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is his novel, “Head of State” (Fourth Estate)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph