Paddy Ashdown has said he sees horrifying parallels between 1930s Germany and what is happening in the post-referendum UK.
The former Liberal Democrats leader told the Hay festival in Wales on Tuesday that he feared for his country, with a huge number of people left “voiceless” as Labour moved further left and the Conservatives further right.
“My next book is about the German resistance to Hitler, so I’m knee-deep into research of the 1930s and I am horrified by the parallels. I’m horrified,” he said.
“The way that we have retreated from internationalism to ugly nationalism in Britain. The way that we have retreated from international trade to protectionism. The sense that somehow or other democracy is failing.
“The habit of lying in our public discourse. What was it Goebbels said? Tell it often, tell it big … stick it on the side of a bus perhaps and drive it around the country. I’m not saying Hitler is around the corner, of course I’m not, although you might conclude the conditions for something like that to emerge are there.”
Lord Ashdown was ostensibly at the festival to talk about his latest popular history book about a second world war spy triangle in Bordeaux, but contemporary politics was never far away.
He said the world would be a better place if more politicians had a better grasp of history. He admitted to sounding “apocalyptic” but said if society parted company from liberal values of “respect, tolerance, internationalism and so on then the next step history shows is something worse”.
Ashdown said the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, was doing a good job but the party was currently too small. He also predicted Theresa May would win the general election comfortably despite what he said was a bad performance on TV on Monday evening.
Asked out May’s refusal to take part in a live TV debate, Ashdown said he was astonished. “I thought it was shocking and the extraordinary thing is, she’s got away with it. If this was Italy, we’d be stringing people from the lamp-posts.
“We are the only advanced democracy in the world in which the leader of our nation can get away with not turning up to have a proper debate with the opposition. I think it is extraordinary and we don’t seem to be kicking up a fuss about it.”
The Hay festival also heard on Monday from the new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who accused national museums in London of playing an unwitting role in the decision to vote for Brexit because they had not engaged sufficiently with the rest of the country.
Tristram Hunt said there was a perception that the big museums were more “Davos than Daventry” and that had to change. The historian, who took charge at the V&A three months ago after a spell as a Labour MP and shadow cabinet member, was delivering a speech outlining the history of the museum and the challenges it faces.
Brexit was a big issue both logistically and intellectually, he said. “We have to acknowledge, I think, that part of the drumbeat towards Brexit was a sense of too many of our national institutions based in London being out of kilter with non-metropolitan, regional and coastal communities.
“It behoves national institutions to make sure that we are talking to all parts of the country … to make sure that we have an offer that isn’t somehow disparate, that isn’t somehow not for the likes of them.”
Leaving the EU would also bring logistical hurdles, he said. “We are involved in the movement of people, of objects, artefacts, day in day out in museums across Europe. If we are holding those up, if they are becoming subject to visas and export entry requirements that is going to hold up the work of the museum.”