Gentrification comes for everything eventually. Down-at-heel neighbourhoods, peasant cuisines, football: all have been polished up for middle-class consumption. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone gave xenophobia the same treatment.
Naked racism may still be unacceptable in polite society. But post-Brexit vote there’s a clear market emerging for a slightly posher, better-read, more respectable way of saying that you’d rather not live next door to Romanians or think Muslims are coming to rape your womenfolk. Think Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins, but with longer words, and for people who wouldn’t be seen dead on an English Defence League march – although one of the more ridiculous contentions in this book by the journalist Douglas Murray is that the EDL are actually terribly misunderstood chaps, who have a point, and aren’t really to blame for the way their rallies regularly end in violence.
So here it is; a book for all those who found David Goodhart’s recent arguments about “white self-interest” – or preferring one’s own ethnic grouping, which he says is definitely not the same as racism – just too woolly liberal. A proper book, with footnotes and everything, about how godless Europe is dying in front of our eyes; and all because it’s too knackered and feeble to resist the barbarian hordes, welcomed in by idiots who’d gladly trade a few beheadings for some colourful ethnic restaurants. (I paraphrase, but barely.) And it probably won’t even matter, for true believers, that it is all so badly argued.
Murray begins with some sweeping stuff about European neighbourhoods becoming indistinguishable from their inhabitants’ native Pakistan, before narrowing things down to the fact that London is no longer a majority white British city. Before long, inevitably, we are reminded of the “prophetic foreboding” of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. Murray never quite spells out why it matters so terribly that people should come here from abroad – what is supposedly so awful about black and brown Londoners, including second or third generation immigrants, or indeed white people born overseas. There are token mentions of pressure on public services, and a grand assertion that the evidence suggesting immigration has economic benefits is all either wrong or fiddled by New Labour. (Anyone familiar with recent Labour history will find mildly surreal Murray’s account of how he imagines the party, and the immigration minister Barbara Roche in particular, tackled immigration.)
But this fearless scourge of political correctness seems oddly reluctant to pinpoint precisely why people coming from India, the Caribbean or eastern Europe was such a ghastly prospect. He has rather fewer inhibitions, however, regarding more recent immigrants from predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries. Chapter after chapter circles around the same repetitive themes: migrants raping and murdering and terrorising; paeans to Christianity; long polemics about how Europe is too “exhausted by history” and colonial guilt to face another battle, and is thus letting itself be rolled over by invaders fiercely confident in their own beliefs.
Much of this is familiar Ukip territory, of course. The book regurgitates the same misleading myths as Nigel Farage about immigration turning Sweden into the rape capital of Europe. (The unexciting truth is that Swedish rape laws are among the strictest in the world, and that the numbers soared when these laws were tightened to change the way incidents were counted; the high number of rape allegations is best seen not as proof of Sweden being dragged into the gutter but of its radically feminist approach to prosecuting.)
He triumphantly dismisses any polling suggesting immigrants actually want to integrate by suggesting that pubs “very often close” when Muslim migrants move in – presumably in a different way than pubs all over Britain are closing, crippled by everything from cheap supermarket booze and stagnating wages to the smoking ban – and that if they really wanted to be British they would go out and “drink lukewarm beer like everybody else”. Be more Nigel Farage, or else.
Yet even Murray seems to acknowledge at one point that in recent years Europe has had little choice but to respond to a flow of desperate migrants in its direction. There are two chapters that barely seem to fit with the rest of the book and they are the ones in which he travels to Greece and Sicily to meet the boat people come ashore, interviewing some to hear stories of why they came.
The tone is quiet reportage rather than rage, and all the better for it. At the end, he concedes that German chancellor Angela Merkel did hit on at leastpart of the answer “by recognising that our continent is probably doing the only thing that a civilised people can do in rescuing such people, welcoming them and trying to give them safety”. But before long the book is ripping into Merkel for taking them in. What, exactly, does he want?
For a book that argues that Europe is in mortal danger, there are surprisingly few concrete suggestions for averting it. Murray proposes tougher curbs on immigration, suggests refugees should be given only temporary refuge and be sent home when it’s safe (a direction in which the Home Office is already moving) and bangs the drum for stronger Christian faith. But if he really does think Muslims are as inherently dangerous as his book suggests, why not a Trump-style ban? Why not refuse to take refugees at all, or do so only following an intensive programme of cultural re-education along his approved lines?
More surprising, however, is the author’s inability to define the culture supposedly in jeopardy. If Europe should more aggressively defend its unique identity, the least one might expect is a clear definition of this precious thing it’s supposed to be defending: the values, experiences and ideas in danger of being lost. But apart from beer and churchgoing, padded out with scorn for anyone trying to distinguish between Islam or Muslims in general and Islamist terrorists in particular, there’s little here to cling to. At one point the author is reduced to suggesting that he thinks the future Europe will stand or fall on its “attitude to church buildings”.
The frustrating thing is that Europe isn’t perfect. It has struggled to cope with unprecedented flows of migrants in recent years, and to integrate those already here. It is confused in some ways about what it stands for. It is politically fractured, most recently by Brexit – which this book doesn’t really cover – but before that by the euro crisis, its treatment of Greece and the alienation of many of its citizens from creaking, remote political EU institutions that do not seem up to the huge economic challenges ahead. Europe isn’t dying, but it isn’t ageing well, and all that is ripe for critical analysis. Sooner or later, someone will write a terrific book about that. This isn’t it.
• The Strange Death of Europe is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £14.24 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.