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Jim's lessons

If the Prime Minister is to survive, he has to crush the cabals and replace cabinet "goblins" with h

Commentators are today understandably drawing comparisons between Gordon Brown's current predicament and the experience of James Callaghan's government, especially with reference to the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79. Having served with Callaghan in No 10 as head of his policy unit (as I did previously under Harold Wilson), I agree that there are some parallels.

Between 1976 and 1979 we had, as now, a new nonconformist prime minister who was politically very experienced, a strong party man who was a former chancellor of the exchequer and had succeeded a brilliant, if controversial predecessor who had won several general elections. Callaghan, like Brown, inherited the tail end of a series of Labour governments, by which time the electorate and the media were getting tired of Labour and ready for a change. Also like Brown, he was handed the premiership by the party and ducked the much-touted opportunity of getting an electoral mandate from an early general election (which he might or might not have won). Scotland similarly presented difficulties for Cal laghan - and finally brought him down in a Commons defeat. Above all, again like Brown, he faced a daunting economic climate with an energy crisis, threatening inflation and foolishly rebellious trade unions.

However, I am also struck by the differences between then and now. The 1970s were, after all, a generation ago and it was a very different age, dismal in many ways.

The economic climate facing Jim Callaghan was far worse than anything that confronts Brown or the Chancellor, Alistair Darling (when the latter finds time to read the economic history of the 1970s and early 1980s he will want to revise his curious claim that today's is the worst economic situation for 60 years). Inflation peaked around 30 per cent just before Callaghan took over, and was usually in double figures. Most other economic indicators were worse than today's, with growth and productivity very poor over a long period and strikes continually disrupting industry. Not for nothing was Britain then known as "the sick man of Europe".

Politically, the challenges facing Callaghan were daunting. Labour was in a Commons minority throughout his premiership (he skilfully cobbled together small majorities through pacts with the Liberals and the Ulstermen). Labour itself was riven by deep ideological differences of a kind and on a scale unknown today, with the strong left wing consistently on the edge of rebellion and limiting the policy options available to the government. The unions and activists facing Brown at this month's conferences are mere pussies compared to the wild men fighting Callaghan.

The parliamentary opposition facing Calla ghan, led by the formidable Margaret Thatcher, was much more threatening than that operating today, which has few figures of stature and even fewer alternative policies on offer. They have nobody to compare with Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Nicholas Ridley, Jim Prior and Keith Joseph. They have no policy programme comparable to Thatcher's liberating, if to some frightening, proposals for free markets, big tax cuts and reducing the monopoly power of our deeply unpopular trade unions.

Today the main opposition is the media, most of which have decided to try to destroy the Labour government and its prime minister, misrepresenting everything it attempts to do as foolish and a failure. The media are more powerful than in the 1970s. But the people will not be electing a cabinet of newspaper editors and Today programme egotists to run the country. A government can see off the media if it demonstrates that it is governing well.

Governing, not surviving

Yet, despite these daunting political and econo mic problems, Callaghan's government survived for three years. And it did more than just survive. For much of that time it governed impressively. Until the final shambles of the Winter of Discontent, when irresponsible trade union behaviour made Thatcher appear to many as the only way out of chaos, Callaghan's government won public approval. In the autumn of 1978 it was ahead of the Tories in the polls and won a key by-election. Callaghan ran well ahead of Thatcher and always dominated her in the Commons until those final months. Inflation was brought down into high single figures. Jim turned the 1976 IMF loan saga into a triumph of cabinet management. The first key steps were taken towards reforming our education system and bringing monetary policy under control.

Although we lost the 1979 election, the Tory lead was cut down from more than 20 per cent at the start of the campaign to 7 per cent on polling day and the defeat was by a modest 40-odd seats - not by the landslide that had appeared inevitable in the months before polling day (and which Charles Clarke fears now faces Labour).

Of course, we were defeated and the Tories were given 18 years of power blessed with North Sea oil. The Winter of Discontent was a gruesome experience for the country, a dreadful failure by the Labour government and by those trade unionists (not all) and the few marsh mallow ministers who inflicted the damage on their own movement and so gave Thatcher the opportunity to carry out her revolution and wreak revenge on the unions. Those 1976-79 years were not a time of proud Labour glory, but they contained many achievements against immense economic and political odds.

Politically, the main lessons were that a prime minister with national values, courage and leadership skills, working collegiately with a strong and loyal cabinet, keeping close to his parliamentary colleagues and remaining connected with the concerns of the public and party rank and file, can overcome most obstacles.

Callaghan had most of those values and skills. He trusted his cabinet colleagues (except perhaps Tony Benn, who behaved as if he was not part of the government, though Callaghan always showed him courtesy, which Benn commendably returned) and his cabinet colleagues trusted him. This collegiate atmosphere made for a relatively coherent government (given the doctrinal divisions) and presented to the nation from No 10 a sense of unity and purpose that is not always apparent today.

Callaghan did not usually - education was an understandable exception - interfere in the micro-details of departmental affairs. But he showed a close interest in his ministers' objectives, holding regular meetings with them individually in the No 10 study, discussing their policy programmes and always encouraging them. In the key Treasury area, he and my policy unit monitored economic policies closely and he held regular meetings with his admirable chancellor, Denis Healey. They had disagreements, but always in private. Callaghan, having expressed his views, then always backed his chancellor in cabinet and in public. His conduct of the 1976 IMF crisis, with seven tense cabinets in which he gave all sides every chance to argue their views and worked with his chancellor throughout, was a good example of how to conduct cabinet and was perhaps the last supreme example of British cabinet government before Thatcher and Tony Blair brought the institution into sad decline.

Gordon Brown (or any successor) could benefit from studying those events: Ken Morgan's biography of Callaghan and my recently published Downing Street Diary of the Callaghan years might be a helpful start. He would see that, even in an age of so-called presidential government, having a strong cabinet is a great asset. Certainly it is hard to be a strong and successful prime minister with a weak cabinet. Callaghan's cabinet - with Healey, John Smith, Merlyn Rees, Roy Hattersley, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, Benn, David Owen and Harold Lever, to name but nine - was clearly stronger than Brown's today.

But it could have been even better and was not as impressive as Wilson's previous cabinet. Cal laghan sadly lost Tony Crosland due to death. He dropped Barbara Castle and did not discourage Roy Jenkins from leaving for Brussels (he almost encouraged him). The latter two were political heavyweights. I could understand Jim's personal feelings against Castle but he would have benefited from her experience and clout. Jenkins seemed semi-detached but he was a great loss and might have been persuaded to stay. When suffering the crunch of the Winter of Discontent Cal laghan might have been better placed with these giants beside him than with mediocrities such as David Ennals, John Silkin and Bruce Millan.

Brown could learn from that earlier experience. His own cabinet - with some commendable young exceptions - seems lightweight compared to Callaghan's and especially relative to the challenges that face it. Some of the biggest current Labour beasts are sadly (and, in my view, unnecessarily) outside the cabinet and if included would add weight and experience. John Reid, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and David Blunkett should, if they could be persuaded, be inside in senior positions.

Of course, they have had their problems with the Prime Minister in the past - and he with them. They may initially prefer the comfort of the back benches. The Prime Minister may personally like neither them, nor the way they have criticised him. But he should swallow his animosities and try to persuade them to join the team. Clarke will have offended some with his comments but he would add great weight to the cabinet and would be better occupied fighting the enemy from inside than trumpeting outside the castle walls. Certainly, such a cabinet of heavy hitters would outpunch David Cameron's team of Notting Hill Gate lightweights.

Once, in 1975, when Wilson had promoted a critic in a reshuffle, I protested, "Harold, have you seen what he has said about you?" He replied, "Bernard, that is not the point. My job is to construct the best possible Labour cabinet." That is Gordon Brown's job, too.

Journalists will sneer that these are "yesterday's men". So what? They are at least yesterday's big and experienced men. We need them for the next 18 months. Does anybody believe it would not be better to listen to one of them chewing up John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman in defence of our government than some of the goblins who now appear?

The Prime Minister might also note that mutual loyalty is a political asset in government. Callaghan backed his ministers and encouraged them to back one another. Admittedly, the left wing plotted over weekend dinners in Hampstead, but Michael Foot continued to preach loyalty. Callaghan discouraged cabals and would not have allowed his deputy whip to plot against his chief whip. He certainly did not encourage No 10 to brief the media against ministerial colleagues. Loyalty is a kind of political cement and is very useful in stormy weather. If the present prime minister has not always demonstrated loyalty in the past, that makes it harder for him to expect loyalty now. But he could learn from Callaghan, who was himself not always loyal to Wilson earlier on but told me that when he suffered prostate cancer in 1972 he swore to reform. Wilson returned the feelings, to the benefit of them both in the crises of 1974-76.

The days of cabals are over

All the above is about the conduct of the job of prime minister, especially the handling of people, where personality is very important and not easy to change. Being prime minister is a uniquely difficult job and it is impossible to know if somebody can do it until they try. Callaghan showed he could do the job in No 10 - better than he ran the exchequer. Gordon Brown has not so far completely managed that, but he is a highly intelligent and experienced professional politician with strong Labour values and, given time, might learn to become a successful prime minister. As a lifelong Labour man, I (of course) hope he can learn, but I cannot be certain that he will. What I know is that he does not have much time.

I am sure he could learn from Jim Callaghan how to handle policy. He needs to focus the government's policy programme in such a way that it gives Labour a fair chance of winning the next election. Callaghan did not dabble in a wide range of policies. He left that to ministers. He did not launch an endless flow of policy initiatives to catch the froth of morning media headlines, which the public ignores or soon forgets. He prioritised a few key areas that mattered to ordinary people: especially controlling prices, sustaining jobs and improving education. In the end he failed on inflation. But he made a good fist of achieving these priorities and they gave his government a policy coherence and a clear political identity and purpose. The public knew what Jim Callaghan and his government were about.

Brown has not yet conveyed (as he did successfully with "prudence" in his early days at the Treasury) a clear sense of purpose. Hence his government appears to lack coherence, purpose and identity. It will not be easy for him to correct that while the media are bent on diminishing and destroying him. But he must try - or else Charles Clarke's stark warnings will be fulfilled.

What should he do? The answer is not easy and anybody who is off the pitch, such as myself, should be wary of advising the present team how to play. But I believe some things can be done quickly. The Prime Minister might, for example, do three things.

First, he should strengthen his cabinet by persuading some big beasts back inside in senior positions - one of them at the Treasury. Labour needs him to try sincerely, and them to agree.

Second, he should overtly try to create trust within his government by giving genuinely full support to his chosen ministers and making it clear that the days of cabals are over (he might wish to acknowledge the past sins of his own entourage in this area and the so-called Blairites could do the same).

Third, and above all, he should abandon micro-tinkering with a wide range of policies and focus on two or three major policy areas where he means to make progress in ways that matter to the mass of ordinary people. He should realise that Labour's legislative programmes in recent years have contained little political potency. I have read the Queen's Speeches in dismay and wondered, "Where are the votes in this?" They are usually full of administrative management and politically correct claptrap. We need a few policy initiatives on a dramatic scale if we are to change the current public mood - which is that it has made up its mind and wants change (Cal laghan told me in 1979 that "there is a sea change in the public mood and it is for That cher"). If that is the case now, we must still try to change it.

My own suggestion would be to take four million of the lowest-paid workers out of the tax net by the time of the next election. That would have an impact on millions of people who are our natural supporters and would offer desirable redistribution of income.

Trimming the fat

How could the £20bn-plus that it would cost be paid? It could be found not by further borrowing, but by cuts in public expenditure, where there is plenty of fat. We could abolish all consultancy in Whitehall (a useless exercise of buck-passing currently costing many billions). Various bureaucratic extravagances, such as "regional development", could be abolished and others, such as "health and safety", seriously trimmed. They were created for symbolic reasons, are costly and often offer little to the public good. The bureaucracy in the NHS might benefit likewise. Abolishing future child benefit beyond the third child (I had four) would save more than £1bn in the next six years.

The Prime Minister should urgently conduct some cabinets to cut bloated expenditure by the required amount. Jim Callaghan did that in 1976-78 and the resulting savings of more than £6bn would, in today's money, produce much of the revenue required.

Concentrating on a few major issues need not mean ignoring particular reforms, provided they matter practically to ordinary citizens. Harold Wilson asked us in 1974 to produce a list of "little things that mean a lot" (and did not cost too much). We did (for example, free TV for the elderly and rescuing the pint measure from Brus sels). Similarly, we could look at the closing of post offices, our appalling rubbish collections and recent proposals to cap or balance net immigration - issues that matter to people of all parties. The central point is that the government must reconnect with the concerns of ordinary people.

Executing such an exercise would require strong leadership and a courageous approach from the top. It would offend some interests, though not the mass of the people. However, the danger is that, without strengthening the cabinet and introducing a few bold policies that have a major impact on the public mood, the government will drift towards electoral defeat. It may be that the public mood is too hostile to change, but at least the effort should be made.

Certainly, Gordon Brown does not, as Jim Cal laghan did, face outwardly a formidable opposition nor (yet) suicidal trade unions inside our tent. The next election is not yet lost for Labour. But it will need a change of leadership style, improved ministerial performance and more politically attractive policies if the public mood is to be shifted. Learning lessons from Callaghan might achieve that.

Lord Donoughue's "Downing Street Diary: Volume 2 - With James Callaghan in No 10" is published this month by Jonathan Cape (£30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party