What I Did On My Summer Vacation

By Mark Aspinwall

Well it was quite a summer. The US and Greece ran out of money, and some other places came close. Their credit ratings fell. A young man was shot dead by police and the response of some Londoners was that they needed new TVs and trainers. Their actions were compared to MPs who exaggerated expenses claims.

Meanwhile the protesters of Syria and Libya were pushed right out of the news, thereby suffering a second repression, this time at the hands of the riot squad in combination with the British media. That gave me an idea: give the London police to the Syrians and the Syrian police to the London rioters, and both sides will have the police they deserve.

The rioters reminded me of Juanita. As usual, I spent some time working in Mexico City this summer. Juanita sets up her taco stand outside my house there most days. She takes a bus from home, two hours in each direction, loaded with things she has cooked or prepared to be cooked, gets the brazier going, puts up the tarp, and feeds passers-by for 10 hours or so. Sometimes when it’s hot she has to lie down on the grass for a while to rest. At 8 or 9 pm, after she’s packed everything away, she scrubs the sidewalk with soapy water. It’s the cleanest pavement in Mexico.

Life is much tougher for women in countries such as Mexico – developing countries with macho cultures and few opportunities. Juanita looks after neighbours, grandchildren, and struggles to earn enough to support herself. She’s about 50 but looks older, a hardworking granny.

If Juanita lived in England she could be a rioter. She could be idle, and make someone pay. But in Mexico if you don’t work – hard and long – you get nothing from anyone. No income support, housing benefit, tax allowances, family credit. So Juanita developed a talent for cooking (instead of a talent for blaming others), and she cooks like an angel. Chocolate tamales, quesadillas with courgette flowers and cheese, buñuelos (my favourite). A buñuelo is basically a cinnamon doughnut one millimetre thick.

Mexico is the 13th richest country in the world according to the World Bank, a member of the OECD, the G20, and many other important international organisations. Mexico is closer in development terms to the US than it is to Honduras or Haiti. It is wealthier per capita than some EU member states. But it still has shocking poverty. From the Mexican perspective it’s easy to look at the London rioters and see a lot a spoiled whingers.

If the UK was closer to Mexico, Juanita could try to sneak in. As it is, a lot of Mexicans go to the US, where the money is better than in Mexico. Not many come to the UK, though they don’t need a visa to enter, unlike the US.

If she came now she’d find the atmosphere a lot more hostile toward immigrants than two years ago. Something happened. It’s called Gillian Duffy. Remember her? She’s the one who complained to Gordon Brown during the 2010 elections that there were too many east Europeans coming to Britain (now she knows how they feel in the Costa del Sol. Lots of Brits, barely a word of Spanish). In fact one of the rioters in Manchester told the BBC that he needed to riot because of Polish workers taking all the jobs.

Anyway, my wife, who’s Mexican, tried to get her visa changed this summer. She sent off her application and got it back two months later with a letter saying the credit card charge had been refused by the bank. Only thing is, the bank said that no charge was ever attempted by the Border Agency. Oops. I guess someone in the Border Agency just decided it was easier to send it back without processing it.

Foreign students are also beginning to feel the full force of Duffy-politics. Immigration is managed according to the pulse on ‘The Avenue’ – Middle England’s answer to the Arab ‘Street’. In March the Home Office announced its intention to cut the number of students from outside the UK by 25%. Reason: it’s worried about dodgy degree programmes in the UK accepting bogus students, whose real aim is simply to get past the Border Agency. A few could be terrorists, others looking to work illegally.

Educating a foreign student amounts to a British services export, just like tourism (imagine the outcry if ministers reduced the number of tourists by 25% – some could be terrorists). And there is a lot of demand from foreign students to study here – around 300,000 non-EU students per year. In 2008-9, fee income and other spending in the UK by these students amounted to about £5 billion, according to the Home Office.

Obviously, limiting the number could be very harmful, and the danger of an anti-foreign student policy is that it sends a chilling effect throughout the higher education world. Message from Britain: study in your own country! For those of us who rely on global sources of talent and global markets, reducing places in British universities for overseas students is as unwise as ‘British jobs for British workers’ (Gordon Brown’s 2007 policy).