Major regrets 'shopping society' image

THE GOVERNMENT and the Conservative Party give the impression that materialism and a 'shopping society' are overriding values, John Major admitted yesterday.

He also said he recognised that there was more to life than politics, and that politics was far from being the most important thing for individuals or the country.

The Prime Minister accepted in an interview with a Sunday newspaper that his concentration on economic policy had left the widespread impression that his administration had no vision of Britain beyond that of a 'shopping' society.

'It does and I regret that. It does give that impression and it makes it look as though the Government and the Tory party are too materialistic,' he told the Mail on Sunday.

'Most emphatically it does that and I regret that very much because those are not the other aims I have, they just happened to be the bedrock on which you build the other aims,' he said.

Although a strong economy was the key to good defence, the welfare state, improved education and law and order, 'I believe also that you do have to try to retain a quality of life that in many ways is more important than the simple accretion of personal wealth or personal influence,' he said.

The frank admissions came as Mr Major set his face against 'appeasing' his critics, vowing that he would not change his leadership style, policies or objectives, and they can be seen as setting him apart from right-wing Thatcherite critics within government and on the Tory back benches.

But Jack Straw, Labour spokesman on the environment, said: 'What this blinding admission shows is that there is a black hole at the heart of the Major ideology.

'Modern Tories are materialistic, or nothing. Over the past 15 years their pitch - and his - has been to put the acquisition of wealth above all. It has not led to improvements for those who are poor. It has led to a deeply divided society.'

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat economics spokesman, said: 'The plaintiff cry, 'I didn't really want it to end up like this', will fool nobody.'

Mr Major signalled a dogged determination not to be unseated in the wake of his latest confidence crisis while dismissing as 'patently ludicrous' the claim that next month's council elections will be a referendum on his leadership.

While he 'admired greatly' the achievements of Baroness Thatcher, he said: 'It is no good clinging to exactly the same things that were right in the Eighties. These are the Nineties; something different is needed now.'

But displaying what some political critics might view as a penchant for saying the wrong thing, or at least awkward timing, he went on: 'Life is very rounded. It isn't just about politics and neither is politics the most important part of it . . . It isn't for this country. I fear for some opinion formers it is becoming the most important thing, and I regret this very much.'

Mr Major might well have tapped the sympathies of numbers of ordinary voters with that statement, but he might well also have alarmed some Tory constituency activists faced with the uphill task of motivating an apathetic electorate in the run up to the local elections and the 9 June European Parliament