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2010 — the year in review

From another botched Labour coup to the election of a coalition government, this political year has been full of interest.

It was the year that defied conventional wisdom. From the beginning of the long election campaign a Conservative victory seemed there for the taking, with most commentators and pollsters still predicting a Tory majority even as the country went to the polls. The same figures were certain that David Miliband would triumph in Labour's first leadership election since 1994. But in both cases the voters decided otherwise. As the establishment reacted with dismay to the first hung parliament since 1974 and to Ed Miliband's election as Labour leader, one was reminded of Bertolt Brecht's gibe about the need to elect a new people.

The year began with another outburst of existential angst over Gordon Brown's leadership. The third and final coup attempt came in January, when Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon moved to rid Labour of the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. But fear of a prolonged civil war, the absence of a Heseltine-type challenger, and Hoon and Hewitt's lack of credibility made Labour pull back from regicide. Peter Mandelson, who acted as the then PM's life-support machine, has since estimated that Brown's continued leadership cost Labour 20-30 seats at the general election and, come June, the party looked admiringly on the ruthless efficiency with which Australia's Labor replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

Thanks to a surprisingly inept start to their campaign, the Tories failed to capitalise on Labour's woes. The poster of an airbrushed David Cameron, bearing the legend "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS", became the most parodied image of the election, ridiculed in scores of spoofs. The poster, like the revelation that Cameron's car followed him with his briefcase as he cycled in to work at Westminster, was a gift to those eager to portray him as vain and narcissistic.

Meanwhile, following polling evidence that George Osborne's "age of austerity" was scaring swing voters away, Cameron softened the party's line on the deficit and suggested that in-year cuts would not be "particularly extensive". His rhetorical U-turn muddled the Conservatives' economic message and suggested that they shared doubts over early spending cuts. Worse was to come as Cameron appeared unsure of his party's tax policy for married couples ("I messed up," he later conceded) and the former deputy party chairman Michael Ashcroft's non-domicile tax status was finally exposed. By the end of February, the Tories were just 2 points ahead of Brown's party, despite having led Labour by 26 points in May 2008.

Cameron's biggest strategic error was to agree to the televised leaders' debates, which transformed Nick Clegg from the little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats into the head of a revolt against the Labour-Tory duopoly. Having shared top billing with the revered Vince Cable at the start of the campaign, Clegg finally emerged as a national figure in his own right and Cable's photo was quietly dropped from the party's home page. It was during that strangely serene weekend following the first debate, when the Icelandic volcano grounded all UK flights, that the Liberal Democrats topped the opinion polls for the first time in their history. Time itself seemed out of joint.

Campaign Charlies

The Lib Dem surge would not last but it forced the Tories to fight a war on two fronts. Moreover, the debates institutionalised three-party politics, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. But "Cleggmania" also cost the Lib Dems, as activists hubristically campaigned in unwinnable seats, neglecting key marginals. Ultimately the party won just 57 seats, five fewer than in 2005.

Meanwhile, conflict was brewing between Cameron's chief of strategy, Steve Hilton, and his director of communications, Andy Coulson. Hilton, heavily influenced by a stint in California, was determined to run a hopeful, Obama-style campaign with the "big society" at its heart. By contrast, Coulson, a former tabloid editor, favoured a fierce and aggressive campaign that relentlessly targeted Brown's record. The result was increasingly incoherent. The "big society" failed to engage Cameron's own party, let alone the public. One Tory backbencher memorably described it as "complete crap", while others referred to it more succinctly as "BS". Oscar Wilde once declared that the problem with socialism "is that it takes up too many spare evenings". Voters working ever longer hours were unimpressed by the suggestion that they should set up their own schools and run local services.

If the Tories' campaign was incoherent, then Labour's was frequently risible. The appearance of an Elvis impersonator at one event and the much-spoofed poster depicting Cameron as the TV detective Gene Hunt are only the most memorable examples. The nadir came on a visit to Lancashire when Brown was overheard describing a Rochdale pensioner, Gillian Duffy, as a "bigoted woman". But despite the media furore over "Bigotgate", the incident had no discernible impact on support for Labour. Polls showed that freshly unpredictable voters even sympathised with the PM.

It was only two days before the election that the Labour leader finally found his voice, in a remarkable speech to Citizens UK. As Brown thundered with the passion of an Old Testament prophet, an excited Mandelson said: "That's what I've been telling him to do all along!" In the event, even though Labour won just 29 per cent of the vote - its second-worst vote share since 1918 - the overall result was not the 1983-style wipeout that some had feared. The party ended up with 258 seats, more than it won in 1983 and 1987, and significantly more than the Tories won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“David Cameron will be Prime Minister by teatime Friday," blogged the Daily Telegraph's Benedict Brogan confidently, several days before the election. In the event, the election delivered a hung parliament for the first time in a generation and the country entered a power vacuum for five days as the Liberal Democrats played the two main parties off against each other. For several days, the prospect of a "rainbow alliance" between Labour, the Lib Dems and minority parties was touted as a serious possibility, though the former Labour home secretary David Blunkett summed up the doubts of many when he warned against a "coalition of the defeated".

Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems was a game-changer, though intense secrecy continued to surround the talks. Brown's surprise resignation on 10 May prompted many newspapers to accuse him of staging a "coup", a last-ditch attempt to keep Labour in power. They were proved wrong. At 8.45pm the very next day, Cameron announced that he and Clegg would together form a government.

The formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took most by surprise, but the signs had been there all along. Since his election as Lib Dem leader, Clegg had moved the party steadily rightwards and promoted those from the free-market, Orange Book faction. It was he, not Cameron, who first spoke in 2009 of the need for "savage cuts". Moreover, the onus was on the Lib Dems, as the party of electoral reform, to prove that coalition government could work. We now know that they had little intention of sticking to their pledge to delay spending cuts until 2011. Even in their negotiations with Labour, as papers leaked to the New Statesman revealed, the Lib Dems were calling for "further and faster action on the deficit", including "some in-year cuts".

While many column inches have been devoted to finding the "cracks in the coalition", it has become increasingly obvious that this is no marriage of convenience. The Tories may have run election broadcasts against the "Hung Parliament Party" but Cameron seems happier sharing power than he would be with an all-Conservative government. The coalition allowed him to marginalise the right of his party and affirm his liberal conservatism.

The benefits for the Lib Dems are harder to discern. The loss of support for them has been startling, some polls putting approval for the party as low as 9 per cent, and one in five Lib Dem voters switching to Labour. Never again will the electorate fall for Clegg's holier-than-thou act. The party that warned of a Tory VAT "bombshell" during the election ended up joining the assault. The party that pledged, at the very least, to vote against higher tuition fees, has voted to triple them. Attracting the anger of student protesters is nothing new for the Tories, but for the Lib Dems - hitherto the party of protest, supporting free education and civil liberties and opposing the war in Iraq - it is a new and disconcerting experience.

Brothers grim

Away from the coalition, attention turned to Labour's leadership contest, where David Mili­band's coronation appeared a formality. With the full force of the New Labour machine behind him, he led from the front. He had more endorsements from the party establishment and larger donations, although his brother, Ed Miliband, won the support of the "big three" trade unions: Unite, Unison and the GMB.

In the event, it proved to be the tightest Labour election since Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981. Only in the 24 hours before the result did Ed Miliband - a one-time 33-1 outsider - become the bookies' favourite. Peter Hain, a leading ally of the younger Miliband, later reflected: "It came from nowhere. He didn't have any infrastructure or resources in place at the start."

As the brothers entered the specially convened leadership conference on a late September afternoon in Manchester, David smiled winningly and waved to the crowd as Ed sat tensely, biting his lip. It meant nothing: the elder Miliband gained the most votes in every round except the last, and eventually lost to his brother by just 1.3 per cent.

Speculation about David's next move dominated the Labour conference proper, as he delivered one of his finest speeches to date. But an unguarded aside on the Iraq war to Harriet Harman ("You voted for it. Why are you clapping?") during his brother's victory speech showed why he could no longer remain in front-line politics. Tensions between the rival camps remain unresolved, notably over Ed's claim to have opposed the war. As for the brothers, one Labour peer tells us that they are no longer on speaking terms.

One family drama soon replaced another as attention turned to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, husband and wife. Although the couple were considered front-runners for the shadow chancellorship, the new leader appointed Alan Johnson. Given the uneasy relationship between Balls and Miliband, perhaps the decision was not surprising. "It's just like being back at the Treasury," Miliband had quipped at the NS Labour leadership hustings in June, after a verbose response from Balls. "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do," Balls shot back.

It's often forgotten that Miliband has an astute grasp of economics, having taught the subject at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2003-2004. Appointing Johnson signalled that, unlike Tony Blair, he was unwilling to subcontract economic policy to his shadow chancellor. Yet Johnson has been no puppet, using Miliband's paternity leave to reaffirm his opposition to a graduate tax (before backtracking in December) and a permanent 50p top rate of income tax.

Labour has struggled to articulate a convincing alternative to the coalition's cuts as George Osborne, hitherto regarded as a liability, has emerged as a dominant figure. As recently as March, his unpopularity was such that Cameron insisted there was no pact between the pair and he could sack Osborne if he wanted to. The then shadow chancellor was left out of the "famous five" election squad - Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Gove, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt - after reportedly receiving low ratings in confidential Conservative polls.

Worse than Thatcher

Since the election, however, the Chancellor has frequently led from the front as the emperor-like Cameron has remained above the fray. Osborne's emergency Budget and Spending Review defined this year, and their effects will define the next. The cuts will reduce spending from 47.3 per cent of GDP in 2010-2011 to 39.8 per cent in 2015-2016 - equivalent to reductions made by Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990. Osborne is determined to use his economic muscle to construct a Tory majority between now and the next general election. The recently announced cap on benefits was not just a populist measure but an act of supreme electoral engineering. The Tories believe that the flight of poor, mainly Labour-voting families from inner London will allow previously unwinnable seats to fall their way.

Conventional wisdom suggests the coalition should prepare for extreme unpopularity as Osborne's £81bn cuts kick in. The Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, has privately predicted that support for his party will fall to 5 per cent and support for the Tories to 25 per cent. International experience suggests that austerity does not always result in electoral punishment, however. The three governments that executed the largest expenditure-based deficit reductions in modern times - Ireland in 1987, Canada in 1994 and Sweden in 1995 - were all re-elected. In addition, the next election will be fought under redrawn constituency boundaries that will strip Labour of about 25 seats.

Should the economy have returned to full health by 2015, Osborne will be in a position to hand out pre-poll sweeteners and to claim, as John Major once did: "It hurt but it worked." After a year in which the script was repeatedly torn up, there is every possibility that the same thing will happen again.

Samira Shackle and George Eaton write for the New Statesman blog The Staggers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special