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How can Labour refit itself for the modern world?

The events of 2016 were hammer blows for the left. But I still believe we can survive and thrive. Here's how. 

I was born in 1983. I have realised in the last year or two that I have taken for granted the onward march of social progress that I have seen throughout my life.

In part because of my own journey from a council estate in East London to a seat in the House of Commons, and in part because my adolescence took place during an economic boom and the advent of new technology, I had assumed that over time we would all become better off and, as the white wristbands told us, we would ‘Make Poverty History’.

In part, because of where I grew up: in a multicultural community in a global city. I’ve seen great advances in areas like race relations, disability rights and the role of women in our society. As the Labour government changed the law on LGBT equality they also changed hearts and minds and changed my life as a result. As a teenager struggling to reconcile my Christian faith and sexuality I finally began to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Martin Luther King famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” and I have always believed that to be true.

But the last couple of years have shaken that conviction and I worry for the future of Britain.

In this piece, I want to try and make sense of what is happening to our country and offer some suggestions about what needs to be done.  

This is a time of unprecedented peace and global prosperity, yet also great anxiety and social upheaval.

The benefits of globalisation and economic growth are being unevenly distributed and people are acutely aware of their own relative disadvantage.

Across Europe and the United States of America, people are sending a clear message to their leaders: that they feel left behind, that they feel unheard and that they feel dislocated in a world that is changing around them. There’s something a little ironic about the emergence of a global movement against globalisation, but it’s not hard to understand what’s driving it.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the biggest gains have been made by the richest.

Since the 60s and 70s communities whose jobs have been reliant on their strengths in traditional manufacturing have been hollowed out through a combination of labour-saving technology and outsourcing elsewhere.

And young people across advanced economies face the prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents.

At times of economic upheaval and with pressures on livelihoods, history tells us that people can become fearful and resentful.

In the United Kingdom, we saw that resentment writ large during the EU referendum campaign.

Resentment towards a political establishment that had let them down over many years. Over broken promises on issues like tuition fees, foreign follies like the war in Iraq and the MPs’ expenses scandal, which confirmed in people’s minds their worst suspicions that politicians are only in it for themselves.

Resentment towards the Square Mile, for its role in a financial crisis that left ordinary taxpayers picking up the bill for a mess that wasn’t of their making. 

Resentment towards immigration, because of a belief that foreign labour was taking jobs, undercutting pay and conditions and placing pressure on over-stretched public services.

‘Vote Leave, Take Control’. ‘Make America Great Again’. ‘Au nom du peuple’! The clarion calls of the political movements capitalising on the anxiety of people in the UK, USA and France.

Just this week, Marine Le Pen has declared that “the divide is not between left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists”. She would not be the first fascist in European history to turn an economic crisis into a political opportunity to inspire hatred.

But in identifying globalisation as the enemy within her sights she is striking a powerful chord.

The tragedy is that the Le Pens and the Trumps of this world, who play on people’s fears and society’s worst prejudices for electoral gain, also champion the very policies that will make their voters’ lives worse.

People like me on the centre-left of politics have a fight on our hands. Our job is to appeal to people’s hopes and aspirations by providing real answers to the challenges facing our country.

But for too long we’ve been out of office and out of answers.

Once again, the Labour Party is learning the hard way that winning elections matters and losing has consequences. 

Right now we need a government that will deal with the inequality driving people’s fears and insecurities.

This country has a lot going for it: the world’s sixth largest economy, 12 of the world’s top 100 universities, and third in the global innovation index.

But our country also faces some big economic challenges. We’ve had a decade of near-stagnant wage growth and falling living standards. We are lagging behind our neighbours as far as productivity is concerned, and our consumer spending is driven by credit card debt.

Meanwhile, demographic challenges mean a lower tax base, rising social care costs and even greater questions about how we pay for it: the number of pensioners will rise by a third to 17 million in 2041.

Whether you voted leave or remain in the referendum I think we can all agree that the decision to leave the European Union presents significant challenges for our economy.

We’re leaving the most advanced political and economic alliance in the world. As members of the single market and the customs union, as part of the largest free trade area in the world, we currently have unfettered access to a market of half a billion consumers. Moreover, it facilitates global trade – with more free trade agreements than the USA, China, Canada, Japan, Russia, India or Brazil.

Every single sector of our economy will be affected, in some way, by the deal that our Prime Minister does or doesn’t strike as she negotiates our exit from the European Union.

In the best of times, we would want to make sure that our future relationship with the European Union safeguards jobs and trade so that we could build on our economic strengths so that all our citizens could continue to enjoy rising prosperity and living standards.

But in times like these, where our economic recovery is fragile and where voters delivered a shock to the political establishment in large part due to the economic pain and misery they are experiencing, it is absolutely essential.

But instead, the government has chosen to prioritise concerns about immigration over our national economic interest.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard calls for a ‘real debate on immigration’. They arrive like the seasons.

 Some in my party argue that we must take a tougher line on immigration to match the public mood.

But a ‘real debate’ requires some argument and, so here is mine: immigration is good for our economy and good for our society. Indeed, it becomes more important with an ageing society and a shrinking working age population.

Those who want less immigration must tell us how they intend to pay for public services and pensions and how they plan to grow our economy. Those of us who defend immigration must ensure that British workers receive the skills they need to find work and that we have sensible controls to manage migration.

There are a number of things we could do: provide a proper migration impact fund, to make sure that public services and infrastructure can cope with additional people, introduce better migration controls to deliver the global talent our economy actually needs, and seriously look at the options for a regional work permit system.

What we should not do is relegate the economy to the second division of concerns.

As far as I am concerned, any government that doesn’t make the economy the priority doesn’t deserve the trust of the British people.

But particularly at this moment, the absolute priority has got to be the economy – and not just in general terms, but in addressing the economic inequality that is fuelling people’s fears and anxieties.

We are at the start of a new industrial revolution that will be like globalisation on steroids.

The World Bank estimates that 57 per cent of jobs in OECD nations are susceptible to automation – rising to 69 per cent in India and 77 per cent in China.

In the report that paved the way for the modern welfare state, William Beveridge said that “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching” – it was true then and it remains true today.

So just as the Attlee Government built the welfare state from the rubble of the Second World War, so too the Labour Party today should embrace the challenge of reshaping post-Brexit Britain, re-imagining social democracy to meet the big social and economic challenges of this century.  

Beveridge’s five giants of want, squalor, ignorance, disease and idleness have a modern relevance as we seek to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality, build the housing and infrastructure that our people and our economy need, equip people with education and lifelong skills for the 21st century, address the health and social care crisis and consider the future of work in the age of automation.

It’s clear that too many people on the right of politics remain fixated with the idea that government has little role to play in growing our economy and strengthening our society.

Just look at the ineptitude of Sajid Javid as Business Secretary, who banned the use of the words ‘industrial strategy’ in the Business department and planned some holiday time in Australia while the fate of British jobs in the steel industry was being sealed in India.

And even in my own party there are those who suffer with the strange affliction that sees a private sector providing eight in 10 jobs as a ‘necessary evil’, best summed up in that most lazy of soundbites: “public good, private bad”.   

As Attlee argued in his speech to the Labour Party conference in 1946: “It is social democracy which can set us free from the tyranny of economic power and preserve us, too, from the dangers of the absolute power of the state”.

What might a modern Beveridge report say about today’s world? Because his five giants are still very much alive. 

WANT

Beveridge himself might be surprised by the prevalence of UK poverty seventy years on from his original analysis of ‘want’ in our society. Four million children grow up today living in poverty – an average of 9 children in every classroom of 30. A combination of falling incomes, rising costs and welfare cuts has led the Institute for Fiscal Studies to predict a 50 per cent rise in relative child poverty by 2020.

The last time we saw such a sharp rise in child poverty was when I was growing up in the 1980s. But as a constituency MP, I am struck by how different the circumstances of my own upbringing were compared with the children I represent growing up in similar circumstances today.

I grew up in a single parent household on a council estate in Stepney in Tower Hamlets, East London. We didn’t have much. When my mum was able to find work, it was often poorly paid, temporary and casual, which made the support network of family living nearby in Wapping, Stepney Green and Bow essential for childcare – and occasionally raiding my Nan’s food cupboards if we were short. The benefits system put food in the fridge, helped with school uniform costs, fed me at school and kept a roof over my head at home.

I used to think I was unlucky. Not having the latest trainers or games console. Not being able to invite friends around to play because we were too embarrassed that our home wasn’t as nice as some of the kids from better off families. Going without electricity because the meter had run out, and so had the money.    

But then I look at the kids growing up with parents in the same circumstances today. They’re not in a council flat with security of tenure, they’re in unaffordable and shabby private rented accommodation. Or temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. Some of them are commuting to school to west London in the morning, because that’s where they came from before they found themselves homeless and placed by their local authority in Redbridge.

Their parents do a 2-3 hour round trip, twice a day, because their schooling is their only stability in life and they don’t know where they might move next. They’ve been moved away from family and friends – the vital support network that might help mum or dad to get a job that fits around school hours. They’re using foodbanks, because they don’t have enough money to eat.

For me, the state was my security net and my springboard. It meant I didn’t go hungry or homeless and it gave me the education I needed to be where I am today.

There is a tragic irony about the welfare debate in our country: the welfare system lacks public confidence, but it also fails the people who need it. Not just the kids like me, but disabled people who can’t work and face the bureaucracy and indignity of regular inquisitions by amateur pen pushers making judgements against the weight of medical evidence from qualified professionals. The pensioners for whom retirement feels more like a prison sentence than a reward for a life of hard work, because they don’t get the care they need to ensure a good quality of life in their final years. Those in work and in poverty: the worst of all worlds – working hard and having nothing to show for it.

As my colleague Dan Jarvis recently argued, what is most shocking about this state of failure, is that it costs so much. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts the cost of poverty to the public purse at £78bn.

I think we need to reimagine the welfare system from first principles.

A welfare system that acts as a safety net: preventing destitution and supporting people into work.

A welfare system that expects you to work: providing meaningful support to help people to reskill, retrain and find employment – and opportunities to give back to society through community action while job-hunting, building friendships, networks and skills in the process.

A welfare system that that works for those who can’t: providing a level of support to disabled people that gives them freedom, dignity and quality of life.

A welfare system that recognises contribution: so that if you’ve paid in, you can access greater government support to help with things like mortgage interest payments if you become unemployed.

A welfare system that makes work pay: so that the combination of in-work benefits, minimum wages and taxation policy will always prevent families from falling below the poverty line.  

Tackling poverty isn’t just a social policy. It’s a crime prevention policy, a health policy and an economic policy.

DISEASE

To tackle disease the original Beveridge Report laid the foundations for the Attlee Government to create the National Health Service. Next year it will be 70 years old. During that time, it has survived under-resourcing and attacks on its universal principles and although the word ‘crisis’ has been used often, to describe today’s NHS as in crisis is something of an understatement:  hospitals are struggling to cope with rising A&E admissions and delays to operations, clinics are overwhelmed, with an ageing workforce and insufficient pipeline of new GPs coming on-board and local authority cuts are compounding social care pressures, leading to avoidable hospital admissions, delayed discharges and poor quality of life for disabled and older people.

That’s why I support the view of my colleagues in Parliament – Labour’s Liz Kendall, the Lib Dems’ Norman Lamb and the Conservatives’ Dr Dan Poulter – that we need an independent commission on the future of health and social care. Labour created the NHS and now we should seek to build a new cross-party consensus around social care.  

IGNORANCE

Education has a powerful role to play, not just in tackling ‘ignorance’, but in tackling poverty and inequality. In addition, unlocking the talent and potential of every citizen is an economic necessity.

In the UK, we must meet that challenge in the context of an ageing society. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Learning Works, the seminal work on widening participation in further education and lifelong learning. Though I remain immensely proud of the educational record of the last Labour government, Helena Kennedy’s observation that “if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed” remains true today.

The United Kingdom lags significantly behind our competitors on basic skills like literacy and numeracy. One in five adults in this country do not have the basic literacy skills that we expect of an 11 year old.

With more of the population expected to work longer, we need to make sure that they can re-skill and retrain. This is urgent. I meet too many constituents now in their fifties and sixties – able to work, unable to find a job, but unable to retire.

A modern Beveridge report would build a further education system that’s simple, easy to understand for learners and employers and joined-up. There needs to be a genuine and sustained commitment to widening participation in higher and degree level apprenticeships – just as the last Labour government led a sustained effort on widening participation in our universities.

We can’t rest on our laurels about the future of our school system, either.

I’m hesitant to propose more piecemeal curriculum reform. Our schools have had enough. Michael Gove was a big advocate of chaos theory in education policy and it certainly did what it said on the tin.

What a modern Beveridge would conclude though, is that a world class education system is about people: high quality leadership and well-trained educators who have freedom to experiment and build professional expertise. The early years of a child’s life remains one of the greatest predictors of their success at the age of 16, which is why greater investment in early years and high quality childcare for the poorest families must be a priority.

When we reach the latter stages of education, careers guidance in this country is abysmal. This is not just an economic issue, but a social justice one: so much of our individual success is reliant on good information, advice and guidance.  We need to start from scratch and make this a national mission involving an army of employers to give young people better advice about planning their futures and making informed choices.

We need to pay more attention to nurturing character and resilience, creativity and critical thinking to turn out young people ready to be good citizens and agile workers. School budget cuts that threaten the performing arts are a risk to this goal.

But it’s not just the arts that matter. Mathematics and science become more important in this century, not less, and our current performance isn’t good enough. We need to rethink pedagogical approaches to these subjects, making computing a fourth core science to prepare our new generation of digital natives to be digital creators; and making financial literacy a key part of the curriculum to tackle our country’s lackadaisical approach to personal debt, savings and pensions.

SQUALOR

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Beveridge’s “squalor” referred to the physical state of the country, and 75 years on we must re-commit to sharing the gains of national wealth across every part of the country.

If we’re to improve productivity and increase our citizens’ life chances, then we must improve national infrastructure and housing.

As IPPR North’s State of the North report in 2015 identified, the government’s pipeline infrastructure projects in London amounted to some £22 billion – one fifth of all UK spending – with just £14 billion allocated across the whole North of England for an area of some 15 million people – twice the size of Scotland.

In transport, £4,300 per commuter is spent in London each year compared to just £710 per commuter in the North generally; down to £580 in the South West and just £480 in the East Midlands. 

Improving regional productivity demands fairer UK investment in infrastructure to enable economic activity, reduce journey times and include the most isolated and deprived communities.

That means supporting the commitment to high speed rail - built by British steel and including Liverpool and the North East as priorities - plus also improving existing inter-city networks especially east-west.

Intra-regional train and bus investment must be priorities, too.

A regional renaissance must be led from within our towns and cities through a real commitment to devolution rather than by trying to pull levers in Westminster and Whitehall.

As a local councillor as well as a Member of Parliament, I know that decisions are made best when they are made closest to the communities they affect.  We need a radical redistribution of power across all of England’s regions with a presumption in favour of ceding power and budgets into the hands of local communities.

That must include the freedom for local authorities to borrow to invest. This week’s Housing White Paper was another missed opportunity to solve the housing crisis. More tinkering. More warm words about speeding up the planning process, getting tough on developers and helping first time buyers. But this crisis is about simple supply and demand. Local authorities have a better track record of balancing their books than their paymasters in the Treasury. It’s time to set them free to invest in a new generation of decent homes to buy and rent.  

IDLENESS

So a modern Beveridge Report would address the modern manifestations of want, ignorance, squalor and disease. That brings me to ‘idleness’ and its modern manifestation: the huge question mark hanging over the future of work.

Voltaire said that “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need”. But what happens in a future where the jobs of men and women are taken by robots?

That sounds like something from science fiction, but it is increasingly science fact. The scale of technological development – not just of processes but of artificial intelligence – is running at a pace that we are struggling to keep up with. As I have mentioned, some estimates suggest that up to two thirds of jobs could be at risk from automation in the decades to come.

Anxiety about the impact of automation on jobs isn’t a new phenomenon.

In 1589 a disappointed William Lee was surprised to learn that Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant a patent for his stocking frame knitting machine because it would, in the words of the Queen, “assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”.

In the 19th century the Luddite Rebellion saw skilled artisan workers across Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire destroy the machines that threatened their livelihood as textile workers.

And in the 1930s John Maynard Keynes warned of the phenomenon of technological unemployment.

What makes the new industrial revolution – dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution – so different from the past is not simply the scale and pace of technological advancement, but also the scope.

The development of technology and learning algorithms that can perform tasks previously thought to be quintessentially human, like the driverless car, has generated a lively debate about the possibilities and risks of such developments.

We might see output up, prices down, quality and abundance.

But as Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, has argued “in addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

There is no doubt that this new industrial revolution and new age of automated capital will have a significant impact on the labour market.

As Professor Andrew McAfee of M.I.T. has argued, “we’re going to see more and more things that look like science fiction and fewer and fewer things that look like jobs”.

We need to learn from our experience of globalisation. The debate is not about whether we want automation: it’s happening. The question is, will we embrace it, or become victims of it.

We’re a nation of creators, innovators and performers. Breakthroughs in science and technology have enormous potential to improve quality of life for everyone - and to help us better share and protect our increasingly endangered natural environment. But it will create winners and losers.

We’ve got to plan now for the challenges ahead. We need to invest in education and skills to prepare people for the future world of work, put in place social protections for people who lose their jobs and helping them to re-skill and retrain, and support communities affected by the loss of traditional industry, to avoid the intergenerational scarring effect we’ve seen during the decline of traditional manufacturing and heavy industry in mining and steel towns. 

We have to use our international alliances to prevent a race to the bottom, with new global agreements on employment rights and protections, standards and pay. We have to tackling grotesque pay inequality by publishing pay ratios and putting workers’ representatives on company boards.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that Britain is well-placed to reap the benefits of this new industrial revolution by increasing substantially our investment in our science base so that the UK continues to punch above our weight in the world in terms of science and innovation.

We need to lead the world on climate change, too. It is one of the greatest threats to the human race. We’ve got to do more than just our bit at reducing emissions. We’ve got to lead the world in green technology and industries, building a circular economy and developing new technology to reduce energy and resource consumption.

Paying for all this will require some difficult choices, but I think it’s time we slayed some shibboleths in any event. It is already clear that a shrinking tax base and greater concentration of wealth in capital assets makes the debate about how we tax wealth more pressing. This isn’t just a question of how we fund our public services, it is a basic question of fairness.

There are people generating huge amounts of wealth through good luck, rather than hard work: just look at the explosion of house prices, creating a two tier economic model where people will inherit hundreds of thousands – or even millions – without lifting a finger.

It is one of the key drivers behind intergenerational inequality. So we should be developing a new model for taxing wealth, not simply income, worrying less about how we tax the dead and more about how we fund the living, and asking those who haven’t earned their money to hand a bit more of it over to help those who have.

None of this is particularly easy or popular, which is why it’s so easy for politicians to park issues in the box marked ‘too difficult’.

Politics, by its nature, is notoriously short-termist. But if we don’t wrestle with these issues now, we will pay a far greater price later. 

Which brings me right back to the politics of the referendum and the vote in the House of Commons last week.

I know many remain voters would have preferred Labour MPs like me to take to the trenches this week and oppose the triggering article 50 at every twist and turn.

But we have to face the facts: a majority of voters in a majority of constituencies voted to leave the EU.

I wish it wasn’t so. I put plenty of shoe leather into campaigning for a different result and I still believe we would be stronger, safer and better off inside the EU. But imagine for a moment what would have happened the morning after the House of Commons blocked the result of a referendum in which 33.5 million people had voted.

Britain would have been plunged into a constitutional crisis. People would have taken to the streets. Riots would have been a distinct possibility.

Theresa May would have been forced to call a general election in which remain or leave would be the only question.

And the result would not have been the overturning of the referendum result, it would be a very different Parliament committed to the hardest of hard Brexits.

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not doubt the integrity or passion of any of those people ringing MPs pleading with us to vote a different way.

But if people think that overturning a vote at the ballot box by a vote in the parliamentary lobbies would reverse the outcome – I am afraid they are kidding themselves.

This referendum was lost because of a coalition of voters.

Sure, there have always been committed Eurosceptics who wanted out come what may. But the referendum was won thanks to millions of people who simply felt left behind, who felt unheard and who wanted to send a clear message.

These are the people at the sharp end of globalisation: the victims of economic inequality and social injustice.

And those of us who campaigned in areas where people turned out in their droves to vote leave heard the same phrase repeated again and again in response to our argument that Leaving the EU would make them worse off.

They simply replied “things can’t get worse than this”.

Sneering at people who voted Leave, or dismissing them as ignorant is part of the problem.

Across western democracies we are already seeing the consequences of what happens when people abandon their faith in mainstream politics. These are the conditions in which fear and prejudice and hatred thrive.

The only way to change course is to change our country.There is no trick and no shortcut to achieve change.

In politics, firstly, you have to earn the right to be heard. For Labour that means showing that we’ve listened and understood why so many people feel that we’ve left them behind for so long.

Secondly, you have to earn people’s trust, by showing you’ve got the answers to address their worries and anxieties, their hopes and their aspirations for them and their families.

Thirdly, when you’ve gained that trust you have to deliver. It’s not about striking a radical pose, it’s about making a radical change. Not just honouring pledges and listing achievements at party conferences. But by constantly striving to do better and be better. 

All photos: Getty

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.