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Is Hungary the EU's first rogue state? Viktor Orban and the long march from freedom

As a student activist, Orban helped free Hungary from communism. As its prime minister, he practises “illiberal democracy” and praises Trump and Putin.

Young people crowd the restaurants and coffee bars of central Budapest. Tourists ride its trolleybuses and admire its magnificent neo-Gothic parliament building and the imposing Buda Castle across the Danube. It seems the model of a post-communist city, transformed by Hungary’s membership of the European Union.

But appearances can mislead. For an alternative view of today’s Hungary, drive 25 miles west – beyond the monolithic Soviet-era apartment blocks of the capital’s outskirts and the much newer but equally monolithic distribution centres of the multi­national retail chains, to the rural village of Felcsút where Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, grew up and still has a weekend home.

Orbán loves football and played semi-professionally in his younger days. After winning power for a second time in 2010, he had a 3,400-seat stadium built next to his house. Designed by the top Hungarian firm Doparum Architects, it has curvaceous tiled roofs supported by arched wooden columns. And it has a football academy that Orbán’s son, Gáspár, attended, and no fewer than ten practice pitches. Beyond them, another huge building – an indoor training facility, perhaps – is under construction, but my interpreter and I were shooed away when we approached.

The Pancho Aréna – named after the great Hungarian player of the 1950s and 1960s, Ferenc “Pancho” Puskás – cost €15m and was largely financed by donations from big Hungarian corporations after Orbán’s government passed a law making gifts to sports organisations tax deductible.

The only problem is that Felcsút has a population of just 1,800, and its team attracts perhaps a few hundred spectators. Not even the construction of a narrow-gauge railway line from a nearby town, financed with €2m of EU funds, has changed that. Few people use the train.

From the start, the project was controversial. György Varga, a stocky 60-year-old, was Felcsút’s thrice-elected mayor when the idea was mooted. Standing in the unkempt front yard of his son’s small house, he told me how he refused to sell the land on which the stadium stands because the sum being offered was too low. He said the Orbán government responded by passing a tailor-made law that barred people with tax debts, such as Varga, from serving as mayor (a claim the government denies).

For whatever reason, Varga lost his job. He could not find other work because, he believes, people were afraid to upset Orbán, and he had to sell his home. “I suffered because I didn’t want to play these games and [indulge] the great dreams of the prime minister,” he said.

Varga was replaced as mayor by a childhood friend of Orbán, Lörinc Mészáros, a lowly utility repairman. Mészáros gave the stadium the go-ahead, and his tiny company was given a share of the construction work. He began to receive other lucrative state construction contracts. In six years, he has become the fifth richest man in Hungary, worth an estimated €384m, according to a list compiled by the financial website napi.hu. His business empire spans hotels, tourism, real estate, agriculture, banking and publishing.

Mészáros now lives on a substantial property on the edge of Felcsút, replete with a gatehouse and a fleet of expensive vehicles, but we found him at his office in the village. A pale, paunchy man in his fifties, he happened to be coming out of a toilet in the hallway as we entered. “Go away!” he shouted when he realised I was a journalist. “What are you doing here? This is private property. Leave immediately – I’ll tell you nothing.” He slammed the door shut.

The Pancho Aréna – once described by an opposition MP as “a monument to corruption and megalomania” – symbolises what Hungary has become over the past seven years. Superficially, it appears to be a conventional democratic country – an EU and Nato member in which elections take place every four years, people can protest on the streets and state-sanctioned violence is rare. But foes of the “Viktator”, as Orbán is sometimes known, allege that he rules it in an increasingly autocratic and corrupt manner. They claim that his government rewards loyal oligarchs with state contracts, many financed by EU development funds, and that Orbán seeks to gag the independent media, packs key institutions that are supposed to be politically neutral with supporters, crushes dissent and vilifies opponents.

Detractors also say that Hungary brazenly flouts EU laws as Orbán – an admirer of Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan – practises “illiberal democracy”. “You signed up to the values of the union. You have violated every single one of them,” Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, declared during a European Parliament debate on Hungary’s conduct that Orbán attended in April. Indeed, some EU officials believe that if Hungary – the most economically and politically advanced of the eight formerly communist countries that gained membership of the European Union in 2004 – were to apply today, it would be rejected.

So how did a politician who began his career in the 1980s as a young student activist fighting Hungary’s communist regime, a champion of Western-style liberal democracy who helped bring down the Berlin Wall, become what he is today: the standard-bearer for Europe’s populist right who excoriates Brussels, courts Moscow, engages in Soviet-style cronyism and propaganda, erects fences to exclude migrants, threatens academic freedom and targets George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who did so much to help him fight Soviet repression?

“Do you want to be remembered as somebody who liberated your country from communism?” Verhofstadt asked during that debate in Brussels. “Or do you want to be commemorated as an eternal enemy of our open European democratic society?”

***

Viktor Orbán was born in 1963 to a father who was a lowly agronomist and Communist Party member and a mother who was a teacher. At high school, he joined the Young Communist League, but he was a natural rebel who grew long hair, loved Western films and music and questioned what he read in state-run newspapers.

Orbán’s disillusionment with the regime of János Kádár, Hungary’s Communist Party leader from 1956 to 1988, began during his year of national service. He hated the rules and was appalled when it appeared that his unit might be deployed against the Solidarity movement emerging in Poland in the early 1980s.

At Budapest’s elite Eötvös Loránd University, where Orbán joined the law college, students enjoyed relative freedom. Hungary’s “goulash communism” was milder than that of other Warsaw Pact countries: a means of appeasing the populace after Soviet tanks crushed its 1956 uprising against Moscow’s rule and killed several thousand protesters in the capital’s streets.

Orbán fell in with a group of independent thinkers who listened to Radio Free Europe, watched Easy Rider, read Jack Kerouac and J D Salinger novels and abhorred communism. They published a semi-subversive journal, held debates and invited outside speakers – reform-minded communists, veterans of the 1956 uprising, as well as George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier and Holocaust survivor who had established a foundation to promote freedom, democracy and civic society in Hungary.

Clever, combative and charismatic, Orbán became the president of the student council. In 1987, he invited Wacław Felczak, a renowned Polish historian, to talk about the Solidarity movement. Igor Janke, Orbán’s biographer, records that when he asked what Hungarian students should do, Felczak replied: ‘‘Form a party!”

The following year, Orbán and three dozen other students from various Budapest universities formed the Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats), or Fidesz for short. Soros provided material support including a photocopier, which was such a valuable means of spreading information in those days that the college authorities stored it in a locked room.

Soviet communism was already crumbling, and the Fidesz leaders were open about their “alternative, liberal and radical” movement. The Kádár regime questioned and warned them, but nothing more. Within a month, Fidesz had a thousand members. Other opposition groups sprang up. The regime responded by offering them round-table discussions on Hungary’s future governance.

The government also agreed to the highly symbolic public reburial in June 1989 of Imre Nagy, the former prime minister who was executed for supporting the 1956 revolution. A Fidesz speaker was invited to address the ceremony on behalf of the country’s youth. Standing on the steps of the Palace of Art in Budapest’s vast Heroes’ Square, before a crowd of 250,000 people and with millions more watching on television, the long-haired, unshaven, 26-year-old Orbán seized the chance to demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

“It needed courage to do that,” Gábor Fodor, a co-founder of Fidesz and Orbán’s former college room-mate, recalled when we met in his Budapest office. “Nobody knew if it would end peacefully or in violence.”

Some reformers feared that Orbán’s words would provoke another Soviet crackdown, but nothing happened. “After the funeral, it was the end of the communist regime,” Fodor said.

Youthful ambition: Viktor Orbán (left) in the late 1980s. Photo: cink.hu

That September, Orbán went to Pembroke College, Oxford, on a Soros Foundation scholarship. Timothy Garton Ash recalled, in a recent Guardian article critical of today’s “fascistic” Orbán, how “the bright-eyed, seemingly idealistic young Oxford Soros scholar sought me out in my rooms… to talk about democracy”. Within months, Orbán returned to Budapest to contest Hungary’s first free elections in March 1990.

Fidesz’s vigorous campaign featured a poster headlined “You choose!” above contrasting photographs of Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany’s Erich Honecker and a young couple embracing. Fidesz won 9 per cent of the vote and 22 seats. Orbán became an MP and party leader.

The Fidesz MPs were fresh, innovative, energetic and irreverent. Their popularity soared but, behind the scenes, the party fractured. Fodor and others favoured collaboration with the liberal Szabad Dem­okraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats) against the conservative government of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). “Orbán said, ‘No. This is a boxing match. There’s a red corner and a blue corner. You have to fight against your enemy and our main enemy is the liberal party because we’re in competition,” Fodor recalled.

István Hegedüs, another Fidesz founder and a Fodor ally, said that Orbán was becoming increasingly autocratic. “We experienced a shift in his personality and character,” he told me during an interview in his art deco apartment in central Budapest. “Instead of collective leadership… the party became more and more centralised. He became more and more authoritarian. We were seen as internal traitors.”

Fodor, Hegedus and several others eventually left Fidesz, and with the MDF government struggling to save Hungary’s post-communist economy from collapse Orbán moved Fidesz sharply to the right. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former Fidesz MP, believes that this shift was purely expedient. “If there was room on the left, he’d have gone there,” she told me over coffee near the parliament building. “He has this extraordinary drive for power, which we see in few other politicians in Europe.”

Orbán’s repositioning of Fidesz backfired. The media rounded on the party and it won just 7 per cent of the vote at the 1994 elections as a coalition of socialists (ex-communists) and liberals took power.

Undaunted, Orbán set out to rally the vanquished Hungarian right behind a platform of nationalist, Christian and family values. He commissioned surveys, consulted public relations experts and ordered party officials to swap their jeans for suits. “They changed their minds, their values and their political ideologies,” Fodor said of his former party. For Orbán, “the only thing that’s important in politics is to win”.

Though he had always hated the Roman Catholic Church for collaborating with the communists, Orbán now embraced religion. He was confirmed. He remarried his wife, Anikó Lévai, whom he had met at law college, in a church ceremony. Their five children were all baptised. “Whether it was a real change or just for the political image it was hard to tell,” Hegedus told me, but the strategy worked.

In 1998, Fidesz won the election with 26 per cent of the vote and 90 seats, and Orbán, aged 35, became prime minister. But his party narrowly lost to the better-prepared socialists four years later, and again in 2006. Orbán blamed those defeats on a hostile media and liberal establishment, and evidently never forgave them. “Orbán keeps track of who his enemies are, who has done him harm, and who he hates, just as he keeps track of those who – in his mind – have tried to destroy him,” Hegedus told another interviewer.

In 2010, Fidesz swept back to power following the global financial crisis and Hungary’s humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund. It won 52 per cent of the vote and two-thirds of the parliamentary seats – a “super-majority” that gave it absolute power. The Hungarian system allowed Orbán to do, in effect, whatever he wanted – and he did. He launched a new Hungarian revolution. Its goal was “the complete refurbishment and renewal of the country”, Zoltán Kovács, his spokesman, told me.

***

On Budapest’s Szabadság (Liberty) Square, a monument, erected by the government in 2014, shows a German imperial eagle preparing to strike the Angel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary. It is dedicated to “the victims of the occupation”.

The monument fails to mention that before the occupation of Hungary in 1944, the state had collaborated with the Nazis – hoping to regain the territories it had lost through the Treaty of Trianon following the Austro-Hungarian empire’s defeat in the First World War – and had sent thousands of Jews to their deaths.

Outraged by this “falsification of history”, Jewish and other civic groups have created a shrine in front of the monument using the photographs, suitcases, shoes and books of Hungarian Jews despatched to extermination camps, and stage regular protests there.

Listen to opponents of Orbán and you’ll hear that the monument is just one example of how his government is rewriting the past. Another is the House of Terror, a museum occupying the former headquarters of the Hungarian secret police in Andrássy Avenue, which stresses the evils of communism at the expense of Hungary’s shameful role in the Second World War. And last year’s 60th anniversary commemorations of the Hungarian Revolution ignored the leadership of the liberal intelligentsia and gave all of the credit to the protesters on the street.

Orbán has sought to rebuild his country’s national pride, whether it is based on truth or not. He has embraced ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Serbia who are descendants of the three million people stranded when the Trianon Treaty stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. He has spent hundreds of millions of euros on new football stadiums and academies, such as the one in Felcsút, in an effort to re-create Hungarian football’s glory days in the 1950s, when the national team beat England 6-3 and 7-1 in the space of six months. He is pumping money into Olympic sports, Hungary having once been a great Olympic nation.

Orbán’s government exhorts Hungarian mothers to have more children (marriage is restricted to heterosexual couples). The preamble to the newly rewritten constitution talks of “an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal” after the “moral decay” of the 20th century. It declares: “We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.”

Orbán has been content to trample on democratic norms to achieve that goal. In a notorious speech in 2014, he boasted of “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West” and held up China, Russia and Turkey as models of successful states.

Since 2010, his government has used its super-majority to push through changes to electoral law that manifestly favour Fidesz. It has filled the constitutional court with supporters, eroded the independence of the judiciary and put Fidesz loyalists in charge of key bodies – the prosecutor general’s office, the central bank, the election commission, a new media council – that are supposed to be politically neutral.

“Institutions have been packed with nominees and appointees with often questionable professional careers, very short CVs but very clear loyalties,” Miklós Ligeti, the legal director of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in Hungary, told me.

Evidence suggests that Orbán’s government also channels huge state contracts, sometimes accompanied by state bank loans, to a handful of friendly oligarchs, who, in turn, are expected to give the government financial and media support.

A study published in March by Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO, found that in six years, four oligarchs with close links to Fidesz won 401 public contracts worth more than €1.8bn. One of the four was Mészáros, Orbán’s childhood friend who shouted at me to go away when I sought him out in Felcsút. Another was Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, whose energy company, Elios Innovativ, secured contracts for street lighting in more than two dozen towns and cities across Hungary. “Politically organised high-level corruption has become a key feature of the regime,” the American NGO Freedom House declared in its latest Nations in Transit report.

“Hungary is a captured state. It is captured by a clique of business oligarchs and the political elite,” Ligeti said. He added that because the prosecutor general is a Fidesz loyalist, “There’s no hope that the prosecution service would thoroughly, reliably examine and investigate high-level corruption cases.”

At the same time, Orbán’s government has turned the state-owned media into what Gábor Polyák, the head of the NGO Mérték Media Monitor, calls a “propaganda machine”. It hobbles the independent media by withholding lucrative state advertising and using friendly oligarchs to buy hostile television stations, newspapers and websites.

In October, Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading opposition newspaper, was abruptly closed after exposing government scandals. A fortnight later, its parent company, Mediaworks, was bought by a business part-owned by Mészáros, who now controls an estimated 192 newspapers. “Pro-government outlets have come to dominate the market to an overwhelming degree,” Freedom House states. “We live in a sort of grey zone between democracy and dictatorship,” said István Hegedus, the Fidesz co-founder.

***

One morning, I visited Maria Schmidt, the director of Budapest’s House of Terror museum and a close friend of Orbán. In a top-floor office above the museum that would once have been occupied by a Communist Party intelligence chief, I asked Schmidt about Hungary’s approach to immigration.

In 2015, huge numbers of migrants and refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria, began crossing into Hungary from Serbia via Greece, because the EU failed to protect its external borders. Most wanted to continue westwards, Hungary having joined the Schengen Area in 2007. But rather than treating the refugees humanely and upholding their basic rights, Orbán’s government portrayed them as a threat to Hungary’s security, and to the ethnic homogeneity of a country where just 1.4 per cent of its ten million citizens are immigrants. The prime minister labelled the new arrivals a “Trojan horse of terrorism” and a threat to “Europe’s Christian culture and identity”. A 230-mile double-layered fence topped by razor wire was hastily constructed along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia.

“Because there are just ten million [Hungarians], we can’t accept that 10 per cent of our population are people we don’t know anything about or what their intentions are and can’t be integrated,” Schmidt told me, adding that some would inevitably be terrorists. “Also, in contrast to former colonial powers, we don’t have any sense of guilt towards them. We never colonised them, never bombed them. We have nothing to make up for.”

Orbán, she added, was being unfairly demonised for daring to oppose liberal orthodoxies about immigration and political correctness. He would be remembered as “one of the most significant and influential shapers of Europe”.

A frequent criticism of Orbán is that he creates enemies against whom he can rally his followers and portray himself as their saviour. After the refugee crisis, Brussels became Orbán’s principal enemy – not least for trying to force Hungary to accept 1,294 asylum-seekers under an EU quota system.

Hungary presently receives €5.6bn a year from the EU to spend on infrastructure, job creation and other projects, but Budapest was plastered with signs this spring bearing the slogan “Állítsuk meg Brüsszelt” (“Let’s halt Brussels”). A “national consultation” sent to every household asked questions such as: “In recent times, terror attack after terror attack has taken place in Europe. Despite this fact, Brussels wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. What do you think Hungary should do?”

Most recently, George Soros has become the government’s favourite punchbag, even though he was Orbán’s patron in the 1980s and has since given more than $400m to civic organisations promoting democracy, free speech, human rights, education and other worthy causes in Hungary. Orbán’s government spent $20m in July on posters and television advertisements showing Soros’s grinning face above the words: “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.” A spokesman for Soros, who is Jewish, called it a campaign “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours”.

The octogenarian philanthropist has come to symbolise the liberal ideals of internationalism, multiculturalism and free movement that Orbán considers such a threat to Hungary’s nationhood. “A common mistake among humanity’s rich and powerful is to believe that they can act like God and be immune from the consequences,” the prime minister declared in his state of the nation address in February. “They declare supposedly incontrovertible facts. They push utopias on to other countries and peoples. They decide what others can or cannot say, and what they can or cannot believe in.”

In April, the Orbán government provoked international outrage by steering legislation through parliament that threatens the future of Budapest’s Central European University – a prestigious institution that Soros founded in 1991 to train the future elites of Europe’s post-communist nations.

In June, Orbán had parliament rubber-stamp a law that will stigmatise NGOs receiving more than $24,000 a year from non-Hungarian sources, by forcing them to declare themselves “foreign-funded” on their websites and publications. That includes 50 or 60 NGOs funded by Soros’s Open Societies Foundation, some of which are quoted in this article. The law “seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power,” Goran Buldioski, the director of the Open Society Foundations in Europe, said.

Orbán routinely derides what he describes as the weak, sclerotic, out-of-touch leadership of the EU, but he welcomed Donald Trump’s victory in November’s US presidential election. He was also the only EU leader to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, for winning the disputed referendum in April that gave him sweeping new powers. And he is much closer to Vladimir Putin than he is to most of his EU counterparts. He has commissioned a nuclear power station to be built by Russia with a $9bn Russian loan. He has criticised EU sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Ukraine.

In a telephone interview after I returned to London, Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokesman, insisted that Orbán’s relationship with Putin was pragmatic, given Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy, and rejected the corruption and other charges levelled against the prime minister.

There was a “systematic effort on behalf of the opposition to discredit the government”, he said. “Most of the NGOs are behaving like primary political actors and that’s a real problem, especially as they are financed by a billionaire who has expressly stated he wants to become the political opposition in this country.”

***

On the May Day holiday, the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the EU, thousands of young Hungarians marched up the broad, leafy Andrássy Avenue. They waved EU flags and chanted, “Europe, not Moscow!” as they passed the imposing Russian embassy on their way to Heroes’ Square, where their leaders gave speeches. “In Hungary, a system of fear is being built on the Russian model,” one of the speakers told the crowd.

The anti-government demonstration was one of the many organised in recent months by a new, student-led movement called Momentum. The echoes of Orbán’s youthful rebellion against an authoritarian regime 28 years earlier are obvious. But so are the differences.

First, these young Hungarians are allowed to protest. Second, the bald fact is that outside the cosmopolitan Budapest, among older, more conservative and provincial voters, Orbán is far more popular than Kádár’s communist regime ever was and it won a sweeping re-election victory in 2014. The economy is healthy and Orbán’s unashamed nationalism, blunt speaking and brazen defiance of Brussels resonate in a country for which the 20th century was a litany of humiliations. Fidesz has a 20 to 30 per cent lead over its nearest rival in the polls. The opposition is fragmented. Orbán looks certain to win a fourth term next year.

In Brussels, 1,100 kilometres to the west, there is growing concern at Orbán’s hollowing out of Hungary’s hard-won democracy. The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Hungary for various alleged breaches of EU laws, and the European People’s Party, the umbrella group for conservative parties, has reprimanded Fidesz.

However, Orbán knows just how far he can push the boundaries. He knows that the crisis-beset EU would not dare invoke the ultimate sanction – Article 7 – which would suspend Hungary’s voting rights and push his country further into Russia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, the EU money keeps flowing, helping Orbán to strengthen the economy, build football stadiums and reward supportive oligarchs. “The EU is funding the first ‘managed democracy’ in Europe,” an astute British observer who lives in Hungary told me. “The money comes from Brussels. The money goes to Fidesz. And the project continues apace.”

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue