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The Labour reckoning

Corbyn has fought a spirited campaign but is he leading the party to its worst defeat since 1935?

This general election is the first since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were defending a huge majority, from which Labour should have, in my opinion, no expectation of emerging as the governing party. Beguiled by the polls and a messianic self-belief, even Ed Miliband went to bed on the eve of the 2015 election intoxicated by intimations of immortality: he was certain that he would fulfil his destiny by becoming our new prime minister, perhaps as the leader of the largest party in a coalition government. Jeremy Corbyn should have no such expectation.

In recent days, I have been speaking to Labour candidates, including those defending small majorities in marginal seats, as well as to activists. The picture emerging is bleaker than the polls would suggest and the mood is one of foreboding: candidates expect to lose scores of seats on Thursday. There’s a sense, too, that two campaigns have been conducted simultaneously: candidates with majorities under 10,000 are trying to hold back the Tory tide, while Corbyn is, as some perceive it, already contesting the next leadership contest – one in which, at present, he is the sole candidate.

Corbyn is an energetic and resilient campaigner. In strongholds across England he purposefully goes about his business addressing rallies of the converted which have all the fervour of religious revivalist meetings or the gatherings of a cult. Corbyn is enjoying the campaign. He and his supporters are buoyed by improving opinion-poll ratings. They believe that their signature manifesto pledges – higher income taxes on those earning £80,000 a year or above, nationalisation of the railways and other utilities, free university tuition fees for students – are popular.

Corbyn and John McDonnell have shifted the “Overton window”, it is said, by broadening the range of policies that the public will accept. They have changed the language and priorities of our politics. They have made the return of socialism in one country if not inevitable then possible. If they go down in flames, they will have done so on their own terms, in their own way. No point pretending to be other than who or what they are – and this, at least, is commendable.

Yet Labour is heading for defeat on 8 June all the same – because, in spite of its energetic campaign, it is engaged in a dance of death. Corbyn and Corbynism are conspicuously popular among students and older radicals who fondly remember the anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as among anti-Blairites. The problem is that the party’s vote share is heavily concentrated in safe seats and it is overly reliant on young people actually turning out to vote.

The political scientist Tom Lubbock has been studying public polling data and, in a thread of tweets, he likened Labour’s plight to that of the proverbial frog in boiling water. “Over the course of the period since it lost in 2010, Labour’s position has worsened with many important groups, especially the over-55s and over-65s,” he told me when we spoke before the Manchester bombing. “Its position has worsened geographically as well – its votes are piling up in safe seats – and in the fundamentals of leadership and credibility. But the overall perspective is obscured by each new crisis.”

The rabid focus on Corbyn’s leadership has disguised a deeper malaise. Like the frog unaware that the temperature of the water in which it swims is dangerously rising, Labour is oblivious to, or refuses to contemplate, the danger it is in. Lubbock, who is a lecturer in politics at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, believes the polls are flattering the party. “Even with a vote share of 33 per cent, the party could suffer a catastrophic loss of seats to the Tories because, unlike in 2005, when it won a majority on 35.2 per cent of the vote, Labour’s vote share is now poorly distributed from the point of view of winning in marginals and it faces a Conservative Party polling around 15 percentage points higher than it did under Michael Howard – in other words, Labour is now disbenefited by the electoral system.”

As well as in Scotland, Labour is struggling in the West and East Midlands, in the north-east and Yorkshire, and in some of the outer London constituencies. One MP told me the party was “dangling over a cliff” and only “just about holding on by its fingertips”. Another spoke of an “existential crisis”. He added: “There is nothing inevitable about Labour’s survival. We may find after this election the ground moves beneath us and people simply give up on waiting and form a new movement or party to represent them.”

Atul Hatwal, who edits the Labour Uncut website, has studied canvassing returns and spoken to many candidates and activists. “The defeat will be greater than 1983, with leading figures such as Tom Watson, Dennis Skinner and Caroline Flint facing defeat while many others, including Yvette Cooper, Ed Miliband and Angela Rayner, are teetering on the brink,” he wrote in a 20 May post for Labour Uncut.

Recent political shocks and the volatility of the polls should make one instinctively sceptical of such emphatic forecasting but Hatwal was unperturbed when I spoke to him. “It’s looking terrible,” he told me. “First, there are the Ukip-to-Tory switchers. Second, there is the drop-off in our vote where people are just not going to vote. Third, and this will have a direct bearing on how bad it is, there are those who are switching directly from us to the Tories. There are people in our heartlands of the north-east and Yorkshire who are ashamed to say they’re voting Tory and yet they are voting Tory. We could be falling towards extinction levels.”

Hatwal expects Labour to lose “over 90 seats”, which would be the party’s worst return since 1935, when, under the nascent leadership of Clement Attlee (who had a few weeks previously replaced George Lansbury, a Christian pacifist who had lost the confidence of the party), it won 154 seats. In 1983, in the aftermath of the Falklands War, Michael Foot’s Labour won 209 seats, on a 27 per cent vote share.

On Tuesday 6 June, Hatwal wrote another post for Labour Uncut which was headlined “Party braced for the worst”. He concluded: “After Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership, Brexit and Trump, the old certainties no longer hold sway. This is certainly the desperate hope of Labour candidates up and down the country. Rarely have so many, who have worked so hard knocking doors, hoped that they’re so wrong.

“But the evidence from Labour’s own data and the Tories’ campaigning choices is compelling and it suggests that they are not.”

+++

Draw an imaginary line across the country from the Severn in the west to the Wash in the east, then exclude London, where Labour is protected by the shield under which cosmopolitans shelter from the post-liberal turn that is transforming our national politics. Below this line there are 197 seats, of which Labour holds 12; of these, several are ultra-marginals. “It’s very close,” Wes Streeting, who is defending a majority of 589 in Ilford North, told me. “There’s a lot of warmth towards me – and I have a terrifically motivated team. In a way, our ground campaigning didn’t stop when we won two years ago. But will it be enough?”

Peter Kyle, who was elected the MP for Hove and Portslade (majority 1,236) in 2015, one of the few Labour gains from the Tories last time around, said: “This is a maverick election; some of the conventions we’ve been guided by have broken down. I represent a strong Remain constituency and I’m finding that lifelong Labour supporters are leaving because of Jeremy and the Corbyn project. Yet what is counterintuitive is that lifelong Tory supporters are voting for me because of my stance on Article 50 – I broke the whip. A large proportion of voters are thinking with their hearts, not their heads. So, we’re on the right playing field here in Hove. But in other parts of the country we are struggling to get on the pitch.”

That the much reduced Tory poll lead should be considered a measure of success is a further indictment of the leadership’s poverty of ambition. Len McCluskey, the Unite power-broker, said early in the campaign that he would be satisfied with a return of 200 seats. McCluskey is in blood stepped so far with the Corbyn project that there is no way back: Karie Murphy, whom Unite lawyers describe as McCluskey’s “close friend”, is one of Corbyn’s principal aides. Andrew Murray, who was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition and until last December a long-time member of the Communist Party of Britain, has been seconded from Unite, where he is chief of staff, to work as a strategist on Corbyn’s campaign.

McCluskey’s influence and power have been fundamental to the survival of Corbyn – and yet he expects the party to lose badly. How has it come to this?

+++

I have recently returned from a reporting trip to Scotland, where the once-hegemonic Labour Party – think Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, John Smith, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown – has collapsed and where the Tories under Ruth Davidson, in their role as the ultimate defenders of the Union, have improbably re-emerged to unsettle the Scottish National Party. Entering the 2015 general election, Labour held 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats; it will be fortunate to retain its solitary seat in this election, Ian Murray’s in Edinburgh South.

One evening I accompanied Angus Robertson, the deputy leader of the SNP, as he and his aides canvassed in the largely rural constituency of Moray (pronounced Murray), which he has rep­resented at Westminster since 2001. We went door-knocking in a ward of council and former council houses in Elgin. Nearly everyone we met supported the SNP; we encountered a few bashful Tory supporters. “And this used to be a Labour area!” Robertson said to me, more in awe than celebration.

In England Labour is mounting a largely defensive campaign: its robust, unapologetic tax and spend policies have proved especially attractive to core supporters. The aim is not to win seats but to lose as few as possible, even with all the uncertainty and anger among Remain voters, many of whom feel unrepresented by the three main political parties in England. (In Scotland, they have the SNP to speak for them.) Led by a cabal of Eurosceptics, Labour has been feeble in its opposition in parliament to Theresa May’s pursuit of a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit. Unthreatened in the Commons, the Prime Minister has ­unified her party (at least superficially, for the purposes of the election) and reunited the right, “bringing home” former Ukip supporters along the way.

Like all political parties, Labour is an uneasy coalition. It comprises Bennite socialists, social democrats, neo-Marxists, public-sector workers, urban liberals, ­cosmopolitan intellectuals, students, the white working class and various minority groups. But what unites the pro-immigration, middle-class liberal in London with the disaffected, socially conservative, working-class Brexiteer in Sunderland? Not a lot, as the EU referendum and the Corbyn wars have shown. If Labour and social democracy are to find a renewed purpose in an age of globalisation, high immigration, deracinated cosmopolitanism and fractured social and class solidarity, it must be above all to defend the labour interest and redress the power of capital for the common good.

In recent weeks, a paper has been ­circulating among some Labour MPs and influential supporters. Written by Jonathan Rutherford, who worked for Ed Miliband and is close to Jon Cruddas, it offers an analysis of Labour’s plight and returns to George Orwell’s celebrated essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” in an attempt to articulate a new language of progressive patriotism. Rutherford believes that Labour has ceased to be the party of the labour interest: the more socially liberal the party has become, the more it finds itself estranged from the people it once sought to represent.

“An alliance between the Tory shires and the ex-industrial working class is taking the country out of the EU,” Rutherford writes. “It is the same alliance that held the country united in 1941 . . . Orwell’s essay remains the best guide to the character of the country – ‘it will change out of all recognition and yet remain the same’ – and so to the kind of politics that Labour must build.”

In his essay, Orwell denounces revolutionary leftist internationalism and writes with respect about the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman. “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”

Orwell was writing in 1941, during the Second World War, when the British nation was isolated and imperilled. For Orwell, the nation was bound together by an invisible chain. “At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”

Rutherford believes the vote for Brexit was an Orwellian tug from below: popular opinion was making itself heard. The millions of Brexit voters in Labour constituencies were not appealing for a return to state socialism of a kind that only the command economy of the Second World War made possible, but expressing frustration with being told what was best for them by plummy elites, even as their wages stagnated and the public services on which they relied atrophied.

So far, the Conservatives have responded most nimbly to the new political realities created by the referendum: Theresa May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the EU but a vote for a new political economy, and it is this she wishes, however falteringly, to create. If Ed Miliband wanted to govern a country that did not exist, as John Gray has written, Jeremy Corbyn has little feeling for what Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country, certainly beyond the metropolis and a few other big cities.

Labour will not win again until it stops choosing leaders – Miliband, Corbyn – whose severance from the common culture is absolute. It must find a way to relink the invisible chain that holds the nation together. “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again,” Orwell wrote, four years before what he desired became manifest in the landslide victory of the postwar, Attlee-led Labour Party. Patriotism and intelligence: the argument will have to be made all over again.

The great irony is that there is perhaps a majority in Britain that shares some version of traditional social-democratic values. The progressive/soft-capitalist consensus of the Tony Blair and David Cameron period has collapsed, but that doesn’t mean the country has swung harshly to the right. The enthusiasm for Corbynism among the young shows how deep is the desire for a new political and economic settlement. But first you have to win power and hold it.

“At some point,” said Peter Kyle, who is struggling to hold on in Hove, “the electorate will be allowed into the discussion we’ve been having as a party. If we aspire to govern, we should listen to what the electorate is about to say on 8 June; we should listen to what will be the unvarnished truth.”

If it listens or not, and whether it loses 30, 50 or even 70 seats, the Labour Party is heading – and it gives me no pleasure to say this – for a shattering defeat under Jeremy Corbyn, just when it should have been seeking to remake our politics for the common good.

What will come next? No one knows. But what we do know – and the trends matter far more than the messes and mishaps and U-turns of an election campaign that will for ever be remembered for the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London – is that an era is passing and the right is once more in the ascendant in these unsettling new times.

This is an updated version of an article which appeared in the 2 June edition of The New Statesman.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning