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The shadow power list

Who really runs Britain? The new establishment is unelected, often unaccountable and in charge of ever more of our public services.

Rafael Behr writes: One of the least persuasive pledges made at the last general election was the Conservative offer to “shrink the state”. In a focus group conducted for the party to help it understand why it had failed to win a majority in parliament, one flummoxed voter trying to decipher what the Tories had in mind offered: “Lopping off Cornwall . . . ?”

Most people do not contemplate the state. Of those who do, few dwell on its proportions relative to some abstract, miniature ideal. In real life, power in Britain is not contained within boundaries easily definable as “government”. With most of the economy privatised, the spectre of extreme political control – the dawn raid by jackbooted government agents – is confined to science fiction and the nightmares of paranoid libertarians. We are not a tyrannised nation. Where we experience the humiliation of powerlessness this is as likely to be at the hands of a private company as a state institution. When it is a state service, there is every chance its functions have been outsourced to a private provider. If Kafka’s Josef K were looking for justice in a labyrinth of 21st-century British administration he would find its walls marked with Serco and Capita logos; his guards would be wearing G4S uniforms.

It is sometimes supposed that the opposite of centralised power must be devolution, but Britain has found a different way. The control that once belonged to government departments, historic institutions or household names has been farmed out sideways. It resides on the boards of companies no one has heard of, in quangos, in hedge funds, in networks of friends and former ministerial advisers who work for charitable bodies with opaque remits.

It no longer makes sense to speak of “the establishment” as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage. The idea of the establishment survives more in the aspiration to show defiance than the craving to belong. Nowadays even Conservative ideologues drape themselves in supposed anti-establishment kudos. They imagine their public-service reforms as subversive assaults on crusty old monopolies: the quasi-privatisation of the schools network; the spread of market forces through the NHS; the drip-drip of ministerial hostility to a BBC funded by the licence fee.

One consequence of having an outsourced establishment is the lucrative opportunities it creates for lobbyists. When the government’s role is reduced to commissioning public goods, go-between agents can scoop up power and influence to match public-sector/ politician buyer and private-sector seller.

Another long-term trend is the rise of marketing and communications experts into the top tier with establishment status. It is the natural product of a liberalising ideology that sees consumer choice as the model mechanism for effective delivery of public goods. Candidates are products and parties live or die according to the health of their brand. It is typical of the age that our Prime Minister, educated at Eton, a scion of the aristocracy, had a career in public relations before politics.

Downing Street will always be at the centre of the action but no longer at the apex of a tidy pyramid of departments and offices arranged in evenly cascading hierarchies of power and prestige. What now passes for the establishment is amorphous and anonymous; a baggy blur of the commercial, the political and the ill-defined space in between. Below, the New Statesman considers just a few of the people who hold the very British brand of inconspicuous power.

Christopher Hyman

Chief executive, Serco

The National Nuclear Laboratory, the Docklands Light Railway, immigration detention centres, the London cycle hire scheme, NHS Suffolk, the National Border Targeting Centre, air-traffic control services, waste collection for local authorities, maintenance services for ballistic missiles, government websites, prisons and a young offender institution – there is almost no branch of government that has not been penetrated by Serco, the outsourcing behemoth. And few have benefited more from the growth of this shadow state than the company’s chief executive, Christopher Hyman.

In 2010, Serco, which gets over 90 per cent of its business from the public sector, paid him a salary of over £3.1m. According to research by One Society, this was “six times more than the highest-paid UK public servant [and] 11 times more than the highestpaid UK local authority CEO”.

Hyman joined Serco in 1994 following stints at Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young and was made group chief executive in 2002. Born to an Indian family in apartheid South Africa in 1963, the abstemious Hyman considered a career as an athlete after running 100 metres in 10.8 seconds but stopped after concluding that he would never win gold. He now races Formula 3 motor cars and cried after finishing fourth in his first-ever competition. “I felt such a failure – I was embarrassed and incredibly emotional.”

A devout Pentecostalist – he fasts every Tuesday and donates a biblical tithe of his income to his local church – Hyman was at a meeting of Serco shareholders at the World Trade Center when the first plane struck on 11 September 2001. He later said of the event: “It confirmed my faith. It renewed my zest for getting the balance right and made me realise that time is not always your own.” In addition to running Serco, Hyman has found the time to release an album of gospel music, an achievement possibly attributable to his decision to sleep just four hours a night.

But while he is celebrated for being the human face of outsourcing, his company’s reputation has become increasingly toxic. In September 2012, Serco was forced to apologise after admitting it had presented false data on 252 call-outs to its out-of-hours NHS general practitioner service in Cornwall. On one occasion, a single doctor was on call for roughly 500,000 people across the county.

Having recently won the £140m contract to run NHS community services in Suffolk, Serco is likely to come under further scrutiny. As the chief executive of G4S, Nick Buckles, learned to his cost, the rulers of the shadow state can quickly become hate figures when their promises of “efficiency” prove illusory. With Labour determined to hold those in the business of NHS reform to account, don’t be surprised if Hyman finds himself hauled before a parliamentary select committee before the end of the year.

Sam Laidlaw

Chief executive, Centrica

Sam Laidlaw, of the privatised utility company Centrica (formerly British Gas), has been described as the “aristocrat” of the energy industry – and his family history indicates how the British ruling class has adapted over the course of a century, from empire to social democracy and the free market. His grandfather Hugh was an executive of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in India, a forerunner of BP; his father, Christophor, worked his way up through BP to become deputy chairman; Sam attended Eton, Cambridge and the elite business school INSÉAD in Fontainebleau before launching his own oil career. In 2006, he was recruited to Centrica from the US company Chevron.

Laidlaw, who lives in Chelsea, has said he would like to be remembered as “someone who was good at creating businesses . . . someone people enjoyed working with, who was fun and made some small contribution to society”. He has presided over Centrica at a time when profits for energy companies have been rising steeply – along with customers’ bills. In 2011, a bonus of £848,000 raised his pay to £4.3m. In 2008 he was one of several executives denounced as “fat cats of British industry” at a Commons business select committee hearing. But as he told staff in an email, “I am not about to apologise for making a healthy profit.”

Until the end of 2012, he was a member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group, a collection of leaders from “sectors of strategic importance to the UK”, which gathered to provide “regular, high-level advice on critical business and economic issues facing the country”. His departure in December came, a report in the Guardian suggested, after public anger had forced the government to criticise “opaque” pricing and tariffs by energy companies, including Centrica.

Laidlaw remains an influential figure, however. He is a non-executive director of HSBC Holdings and sits on the bank’s group remuneration committee, whose responsibility it is to approve company policy on pay for senior executives – including bonuses.

Professor Malcolm Grant

Chairman, National Health Service Commissioning Board

The overhaul of the NHS by the coalition government produced another super-quango (this after the government promised to banish them). Tasked with chairing the newly minted NHS Commissioning Board is Malcolm Grant, whose official job is to “provide strategic leadership and ensure proper governance” but who will also be steering the most controversial transformation in the health service since its creation. Grant played a critical role in recruiting the non-executive and executive members of the board who between them will be managing an annual budget of £95bn. Roughly £65bn of this will be spent by clinical commissioning groups, which are replacing the old primary care trusts – but in essence, from April this year, Grant will have oversight of the entire NHS budget.

Inevitably, it’s not his only job. Grant, who grew up in Oamaru, New Zealand, trained as a barrister, has been a professor of land economy and a professor of law, and is now provost of University College London. He has had his share of chairmanships, too, running the Local Government Commission for England (1996-2001), the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (2000-2005) and the Russell Group of research universities (2006-2009).

As if that weren’t enough, he is also, by appointment of the Prime Minister, a business ambassador for Britain and a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. As such, he has influence in multiple public spheres and has now been entrusted with perhaps the greatest responsibility of all: the nation’s health.

Tim Allan

Chief executive, Portland PR

Offered the chance to become the prime minister’s director of communications, few in the world of public relations would gratefully decline. Yet “no” was the answer Tim Allan gave to Tony Blair after Labour’s third successive general election victory in 2005. Correctly calculating that Blair would be unable to fulfil his pledge to serve a full term and that the role would be short-lived, Allan chose instead to remain as managing director of Portland, the political consultancy and public relations agency he had founded in 2001. Eight years after making the decision, he is unlikely to regret it.

Portland, whose clients have included Tes - co, Google, the Russian government, Coca- Cola, BTA Bank of Kazakhstan, McDonald’s and Barclays, has made Allan one of the most influential PR men in the country and one of the wealthiest. In 2012, he sold his majority stake in the firm to the US marketing giant Omnicom in a deal estimated at £20m.

Allan’s break came in 1992 when he was headhunted by Blair, the then shadow home secretary, after studying at Cambridge. On the recommendation of one of his researchers, James Purnell, a friend of Allan’s from the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Surrey, Blair invited the young graduate to join his office. As Allan later recalled: “ ‘Were you involved in student politics?’ Blair asked me. ‘I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘Great. Can you start tomorrow?’ he responded.”

He was promoted to deputy press secretary in 1994, working directly under Alastair Campbell, and became deputy director of communications after Labour’s 1997 election victory. He left Downing Street the following year to become BSkyB’s director of corporate communications, a role that involved writing speeches for Elisabeth Murdoch, and founded Portland after winning the BSkyB PR contract from Bell Pottinger.

With his Conservative connections, Allan has adapted to life under the coalition better than most Blairites. His first employee at Portland was Rachel Whetstone, whom he hired from Carlton where she was working alongside David Cameron, the TV company’s communications chief. Whetstone, who is now head of communications for Google, later married Steve Hilton, Cameron’s director of strategy between 2005 and 2012.

Allan’s other Conservative hires have included the Prime Minister’s former press secretary George Eustice and his former director of policy James O’Shaughnessy, currently chief policy adviser at Portland. And among recent recruits are Allan’s former No 10 colleague Campbell as a “strategic consultant” and the Sun’s former political editor George Pascoe-Watson as a partner.

Joanna Shields

Chief executive, Tech City; former head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Facebook

Joanna Shields, the new chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, has internet pedigree, having worked with Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook. She may have been unable to save Bebo, one of the social networks caught in the squeeze between the dwindling Myspace and nascent Facebook, but her reputation in the tech world remains strong. Her task now is to transform Tech City into Britain’s version of Silicon Valley.

For years Britain has lagged behind the US in the technology sector. We used to do well; the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro encouraged a generation of bedroom coders which many credit with launching the British IT industry, and companies such as ARM, Codemasters and Eidos used to be at the top of their game. Yet underinvestment, a university culture that looked down on computer science and a lack of any central location for the community all damaged our lead.

But now the government is staging a comeback, eager to take on Silicon Valley at its own game, and has anointed Silicon Roundabout –the cluster of tech start-ups based around the Old Street area of east London – as the place to do it. The name had to go, though, and so Tech City was born. In the notoriously libertarian world of tech start-ups, the quango was not welcomed as readily as one might have expected. The Register, the IT industry’s house website, attacked it for burning through £1m in just over a year, and others have pointed out that, beyond marketing and PR, the organisation’s main aims – feeding the needs of tech entrepreneurs into No 10’s policy considerations – could be achieved by one person acting as a link between the two.

If Tech City is to achieve its goals, it must overcome a few problems. One element of Silicon Valley’s success was that, until the boom, it was a cheap place to be. Land, housing and the cost of living were all low. That can’t be said for central London. Even in an industry where surviving on Pot Noodle and coding for no pay are marks of pride, it’s a bit much to expect young entrepreneurs to be able to afford the rents in Silicon Roundabout.

On smaller initiatives, though, Tech City’s influence is already showing. The government’s policy on digital matters has greatly improved, as the implementation of the 2011 Hargreaves recommendations on copyright reform demonstrated. Britain now has an intellectual property regime fit for the 21st century, even if it’s more 2000 than 2013. And if Shields finds her hotline to No 10 is more responsive than that of her predecessor, that success may be the first of many.

Howard Davies

Professor, Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris

A former management consultant and civil servant, Howard Davies is one of the ultimate establishment insiders. He has been the controller of the Audit Commission, the first chairman of the Financial Services Authority, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and the deputy governor of the Bank of England. He has worked for both the Treasury and the Foreign Office and served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery and he chaired the 2007 Man Booker Prize judges.

However, Davies is best known for resigning as director of the London School of Economics over the LSE’s links to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime. As Libyans battled to overthrow their brutal dictatorship, Davies conceded that the LSE’s reputation had been damaged by accepting £300,000 in research funding from a foundation controlled by Gaddafi’s son Saif. The total amount solicited from the foundation ran to £1.5m. Davies admitted having made a “personal error of judgement” in giving advice to Libya on how to modernise its financial institutions.

His fall has not been painful: he is now a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques (“Sciences Po”) in Paris and the chairman of the UK Airports Commission, and also sits on a series of institutional boards, including those of Prudential plc and the National Theatre. However, the Gaddafi affair illuminated the way in which Britain’s corporate, public and political institutions work together. The LSE’s accommodation of the Gaddafi family was just one element in a broad attempt to woo the oil-rich Libyan state.

In 2006, Anthony Giddens, another former director of the LSE and the architect of New Labour’s “Third Way”, visited the Libyan capital, Tripoli. In an account of his trip for the New Statesman, Giddens outlined Gaddafi’s theory of “direct democracy” and praised Gaddafi père et fils for “the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya”. The following year Tony Blair met Gaddafi in a Bedouin tent outside Tripoli. With him was Peter Sutherland, the then chairman of BP – and soon to become chair of the LSE’s court of governors. British companies gained access to Libya’s oil reserves; Gaddafi got help from MI6, under the guise of the “war on terror”, in clamping down on dissidents such as Sami al-Saadi, who last year was awarded £2.2m in compensation for Britain’s role in his torture. While the colonel met his grisly end in a sewer pipe, those who did business with him have prospered.

Neil Woodford

Head of UK equities, Invesco Perpetual

In many ways, Neil Woodford is the antithesis of the kind of financier that post-crisis Britain loves to hate. He doesn’t even work in the City – Invesco Perpetual, where he is head of UK investment and presides over funds worth £30bn – is based in Henley, Oxfordshire. There haven’t been any bonus-hunting career moves between Square Mile firms for him; he joined Invesco in 1988 and has been there ever since. To top it off, he didn’t even go to Oxford or Cambridge – this City slicker studied economics and agricultural economics at Exeter.

His influence is undimmed, even augmented, by his background and under-the-radar way of working. Woodford runs both Invesco Perpetual’s income and high-income funds, the latter being one of Britain’s largest investment funds, with shareholdings in a big slice of FTSE-250 companies and assets of £12bn. His portfolios are made up largely of deposits from small investors – pension funds, £50-a-month savers and Isas. An awful lot of people have, in one way or another, put their money in Woodford’s hands, and the decisions he makes have the power to ripple out to millions of UK households.

What he does with their money allows him to pull levers behind the scenes in some of Britain’s biggest companies. His funds have multibillion-pound stakes in the tobacco giants BAT, Reynolds American and Imperial Tobacco, as well as utilities such as the Drax Group (the power company) and BT. Another big interest is BAE Systems: if Angela Merkel hadn’t stepped in to kill off its merger with the Franco-German aerospace giant EADS, Woodford would probably have made the same decision and determined the fate of one of the Ministry of Defence’s largest British suppliers. He is a kingmaker, too – the Guardian reported last year that the word in the City is that it was he who forced out AstraZeneca’s chief executive David Brennan.

Kevin Moses

Director of science funding, Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is perhaps one of the most prolific grant-awarding bodies in British science and, as its director of science funding, Kevin Moses is in the hot seat. Started in 1936 with money left by the USborn philanthropist Henry Wellcome, the trust’s endowment has grown over the past 77 years to £14.5bn today. Most of the money is spent on charitable grants to researchers and others working in the field of biomedical science. Its work led to the publication of 4,433 scientific papers in 2011 and in the year 2011/2012 it awarded 970 research grants.

The pharmaceutical firms probably control a larger proportion of scientific funding than the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has more say in deciding which medicines come to market in Britain.

The pharmaceutical industry is fixated on hunting for profitable medicines; NICE has a far more routine regulatory job. By contrast, the Wellcome Trust is bound only by internal decisions on where it chooses to focus its efforts. It has no pledge drives, no donors to keep happy and not much of a public image to defend. It can focus its funding where it helps the most, and where it will fill in gaps missed by other bodies.

One hopes that Dr Moses understands that with great power comes great responsibility.

Tony Mitchell

Director, Tesco supply chain

Tony Mitchell is the model of a Tesco company man. He started on the shop floor in 1978 and worked his way up to store manager, then eventually to head office, and now he decides what £1 in every £7 in the UK is spent on.

Getting on to the shelves at Tesco can make a young company, and getting thrown off them can destroy a business. That is something the suppliers of its Everyday Value burgers will be learning to their cost after buying meat from Poland, rather than Britain or Ireland, as their agreement with Tesco stipulated. When it became apparent that the burgers were tainted with horse meat – up to 29 per cent, according to reports – Tesco dropped the supplier altogether.

Although the supermarket’s core business remains groceries, it has a grasp on many other sectors. Take bookselling. Until the Net Book Agreement began to collapse in 1994, books were sold at a fixed price in Britain, allowing independent shops to compete with the chains and ensuring that publications cost the same in all shops. But as competition entered the trade, so the supermarkets used their strength. Now the big three supermarkets are arguably as significant as Amazon.

But where Amazon offers near-infinite selection, the supermarkets restrict what they stock to preserve shelf space and chase economies of scale. As a result, Tesco’s two book buyers were named jointly the twelfth most powerful person in the industry by the Guardian, which argued that they “reflect sales charts but also shape them”. The Tesco story is similar in music and video games.

While the internet offers a long tail to those who want to build slowly, success or failure in the mass market is dictated by an evershrinking group of people such as Mitchell.

Natalie Evans

Director, New Schools Network

Free schools are Michael Gove’s signature policy – a glimpse of what education could be like without “undue interference” from local authorities. The requisite legislation was passed in 2010, but immediately there was a snag: who would have the time, inclination and money to set up a school? Parents’ groups, such as the one led by journalist Toby Young in west London, were in short supply.

Enter the New Schools Network (NSN), whose director is Natalie Evans, a former deputy director of the Conservative Research Department and of Policy Exchange – the think tank whose director Neil O’Brien recently left to work for the Chancellor, George Osborne.

Evans took charge of the NSN at the start of this year, replacing Rachel Wolf, a special adviser to Gove while he was shadow education secretary. Wolf has moved to New York to work for Rupert Murdoch at Amplify, the new education division of News Corp.

The NSN is a registered charity, although it is not clear who its donors are. Its remit is, nebulously, to “support” free school applicants. Most of these have turned out to be faith organisations, education companies or existing sponsors of academies.

The connections between the NSN and the Department for Education are close – sometimes uncomfortably so – and campaigners and opposition MPs such as Lisa Nandy question the organisation’s lack of transparency. For instance, between July and December 2010, the Education Secretary’s confidant Dominic Cummings was employed by the NSN as a paid freelancer. From August to December of that same year, he held one of the four parliamentary passes the minister was allowed to give out, and could come and go from Westminster as he wished.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported, “In November 2010, while Cummings was freelancing at NSN and enjoying DfE access through his parliamentary pass, the department finalised a grant to the NSN. The grant, for £500,000, was awarded to the organisation in June without being advertised and without inviting any other orga - nisations to tender.” In May that year, Cummings had emailed civil servants urging them to fast-track cash to the NSN, saying: “Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!”

The close links between the NSN and Gove’s inner circle have led civil servants in the Department for Education to feel that they are being excluded from policy decisions at a time when the government is pushing through sweeping reforms. That suspicion was compounded in 2011 when the Financial Times reported that Gove and his advisers were discussing government business using private email accounts, bypassing Freedom of Information requests.

Meanwhile, Gove’s flagship policy is still struggling to catch on – just 24 free schools opened in 2011, and another 55 in 2012.

Andrew Dilnot

Warden, Nuffield College

How we are to pay for elderly care is one of the great unsolved problems of our time. When the present government came to power in 2010, it turned to Andrew Dilnot to provide that solution. The Dilnot commission’s report – which appeared in July 2011 – received cautious cross-party support, though its implementation is still in doubt. One thing is certain: over the next ten years, it will be impossible to discuss the topic without mentioning Dilnot’s name.

An economist by profession, Dilnot has long occupied a succession of platforms that allow his voice to be heard. He was the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies between 1991 and 2002, then principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and in 2011 he was appointed Warden of Nuffield College, a graduate research college with an endowment of well over £100m. The college has long had ties to Whitehall and Westminster, and these have only grown closer in the 21st century; many of its fellows are former cabinet members, civil servants and Fleet Street editors.

Last year, Dilnot became the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, and he continues to be engaged with public policy as well as exerting political influence.

Research by Caroline Crampton, George Eaton, Sophie Elmhirst, Alex Hern, Helen Lewis and Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone