Exclusive: Michael Heseltine fears British people are 'too rich to push' for economic recovery

Lord Heseltine believes Britain lacks drive but senior government adviser points to rising employment and house prices as signs the economy was recovering

British people may be so wealthy that they lack the “national will” needed to secure an economic recovery, Lord Heseltine has suggested.

In an interview with The Independent, the former Deputy Prime Minister said that one theory why Britain's growth was sluggish compared with India and China was because – unlike the UK – those countries had "real problems".

One of the Government's senior advisers, Lord Heseltine has been consulting with George Osborne on regenerating British cities. Most of the recommendations in his regional growth report were accepted by the Chancellor in last week's Budget. But asked whether it was essential that the country's economy improved, the 80-year-old peer replied: "It's not essential. It doesn't need to. It can go on drifting down.

"There is no God-given rule saying you've got to have a well-performing economy. It could be an indifferent economy. It's a question of whether the national will is there; whether we want it. And the richer you get the less imperative there is."

Lord Heseltine – who sought to revitalise Liverpool after riots in 1981 while a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher – said: "Maybe one of the problems of advanced economies is that people are sufficiently well off that they don't need to drive themselves any more. All these comparisons with China and India are ridiculous. I've just come back from India. You know why they've got to drive themselves – they've got real problems! While in this country there are people with problems, the vast majority of people have standards which are not comparable with the Third World."

Asked whether he believed poor growth stemmed from a lack of desire, Lord Heseltine replied: "It could be. I don't personally subscribe to that view but I don't discount it as a possible thought … I think there is in the nature of most people a desire to do something and to do it better, and do it to a degree of personal satisfaction."

He pointed to rising employment and house prices as signs the economy was recovering – and queried the official GDP statistics. Asked whether he thought the figures were wrong, he said: "That would be the question I would ask every day if I were in government: how do you square these statistics with all the evidence that is being produced – not all, but a lot of it."

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