Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death Of Europe

In the context of what is being called Europe’s “migration crisis,” Douglas Murray has been inescapable. He is a regular panelist, commentator, debater, interviewee and contrarian, and has become a minor Internet celebrity for his daring to give voice to caution when the leaders of an entire continent undertook an immigration project without precedent in human history, bolstered only by Angela Merkel’s “wir schaffen das” (“We can do it!”). Though not blind to the benefits of immigration, Murray has noticed what others have not: that all across Europe, cultural ghettoes are forming, where the host culture’s mores and even laws do not pertain; that some immigrant groups assimilate far better than others; that the native populations, always wary of mass immigration, have become increasingly hostile to it; and, finally, that the leadership of Europe is hopelessly out of step with the people they purport to lead. All of this is a recipe for instability, of the kind that creates a Brexit or makes Marine Le Pen a candidate for national election, and leaves the political and pundit classes in palpitations. The very title, The Strange Death of Europe, commits itself to a particular vision: countries and cultures may rise and fall, but the continent itself cannot die. In what sense, then, is Europe in peril? Low native birth rates and an unceasing tide of immigration, together with the higher average birth rates of non-natives, are effecting a demographic shift that will, in the lifetimes of most of us alive today, irrevocably change Europe. At a minimum, this change will sever Europe from its traditions, both religious and cultural, as they have existed for centuries. But the larger question, the great unknown, is what will become of the continent once it has been unmoored from its heritage? Will the future peoples of Europe evince the same respect for human rights, for individual differences, as the present peoples? Or will the new arrivals refashion the continent in their own image, giving greater weight to the ideals of their native lands than the mores of their host countries?

In the early chapters, Murray plays the role of historian and journalist, charting the steep rise of immigration into Europe after the Second World War, and contextualizing the recent numbers with those from Europe’s history. We learn, for example, that in the decade between 2002 and 2012, “the number of people living in England and Wales who had been born overseas had risen by nearly three million,” that some three million people living in England and Wales “were living in households where not one adult spoke English as their main language,” and that white British men and women were now a minority within their capital city. Projections from Oxford University demographer David Coleman suggest that, on present trends, people who identify as “white British” will cease to be a majority in the United Kingdom by as early as the 2060s. These are staggering figures, both in their size and in the swiftness of the change they have brought, and are the more remarkable when compared with polling data on the British public’s attitudes towards immigration. In 2011, representatives from both major parties reacted to the results of a 2011 census that revealed how rapidly Britain had changed by insisting that acceptance was the only possible response. Boris Johnson, of the Conservative Party: “We need to stop moaning about the dam-burst. It’s happened. There is nothing we can now do except make the process of absorption as eupeptic as possible.” Sunder Katwala, of the left-wing British Future think tank, echoed that sentiment exactly: “The question of do you want this to happen or don’t you want this to happen implies that you’ve got a choice and you could say ‘let’s not have any diversity.’ This is who we are – it’s inevitable.” How do ordinary Britons feel about being told they don’t have a choice? Murray compels our attention:

In the same month that these insistences that people ‘get over it’ emerged, a poll by YouGov found 67 per cent of the British public believed that immigration over the previous decade had been ‘a bad thing for Britain.’ Only 11 per cent believed it had been ‘a good thing.’ This included majorities among voters for every one of the three major parties. Poll after poll both before and since have found the same thing. As well as routinely prioritising immigration as their number one concern, a majority of voters in Britain regularly described immigration as having had a negative impact on their public services and housing through overcrowding, as well as harming the nation’s sense of identity.

As Murray demonstrates, again and again, the gulf between public opinion and the decisions of the political parties is terrifyingly wide. In the book’s second section, “How We Got Hooked On Immigration,” he investigates the emergence of this divide, and the reasons for it, from our obsession with cheap labour (the Turkish “guest workers” invited into Germany after World War II) to our fear of an aging, dependant populace, to our love of “diversity and multiculturalism.” He notes, from years of experience, how easily each of these seemingly unique arguments blends into the other. Point out, for example, that a flood of cheap labour into a country disadvantages the less educated natives of that country by driving down their wages, or adds a sizeable burden to already strained government services, and the grounds of the debate shift: don’t you love having access to cuisine from all over the world? Don’t you love hearing many languages spoken in your cosmopolitan capital cities? There is an inherent asymmetry in the debate, which is that anyone speaking in favour of immigration has all kinds of positive attributes attributed to them by default, whereas critics of immigration must overcome an avalanche of invective before they can even begin to argue their points.

The upsides of immigration have become easy to talk about: to simply nod to them is to express values of openness, tolerance and broad-mindedness. Yet to nod to, let alone express, the downsides of immigration is to invite accusations of closed-mindedness and intolerance, xenophobia and barely disguised racism. All of which leaves the attitude of the majority of the public almost impossible to express.

Some of these downsides are practical, and should be easy to discuss. Consider housing: as Murray writes, “with immigration at the rate it has been in recent years the UK needs to build a city the size of Liverpool every year.” Predictably, however, demand for housing far exceeds available supply, with the result that public housing projects are overcrowded (often illegally so, as in the case of the doomed Grenfell Tower), public school classrooms are stuffed to the bursting point, and the National Health Service has been stretched thin (Murray points out that some €20 million are spent on translation services alone). Other downsides, however, are more abstract, and though that makes them easier to dismiss, these abstract negatives are often the most important.

One of the most persistently advanced rationales for mass immigration has to do with the rapidly ageing native populations. Who will take care of you in your old age, they ask? The immigrants of tomorrow will pay the taxes necessary to sustain the workers of yesterday in retirement. How the immigrants feel about such a bargain, no one seems much to care, and just what will society do when today’s working immigrants become tomorrow’s pensioners? Better not to ask, for with such short term solutions we may have no need of thinking long term. But among these practical concerns is buried a more important, more abstract one: what will the society of the future look like, if our only solution to lower fertility rates is to import people, en masse, from different countries and cultures? In his various debates, Murray has demonstrated a gift for the well-timed riposte, and that same talent emerges in his writing: “There will always be those who protest about the idea of working into their sixties. But perhaps some people will see working longer in a society they know as being preferable to dying in one in which they feel a stranger.” The word “society” has a specific meaning; it invokes feelings of community and commonality, of shared goals and shared histories. Societies cannot be engineered from the top down, though – as we are rapidly demonstrating – they can be eroded in that manner. And for all our love of pluralism and diversity, of cosmopolitan cities offering us access to the entire world’s cuisines, our most genuine longings and attachments are hopelessly local. It is this we are now in danger of losing, and it is the fear of this loss that is driving what the European elites have sneeringly dismissed as “populism.”

In the latter half of the book, Murray investigates the underlying philosophical currents of modern Europe, drawing on such luminaries as the philosopher Chantal Delsol and the novelist Michel Houellebecq, both of whom are united in their pessimistic vision of a European people without transcendent meaning, fighting to stave off nihilism. It is here, in particular, that Murray truly shines, distinguishing himself from the many other commentators who have taken up the topic of Europe’s demise in recent decades.

The search for meaning is not new. What is new is that almost nothing in modern European culture applies itself to offering an answer. Nothing says, ‘Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years and may well fulfil you too.’ Instead, a voice at best says, ‘Find your meaning where you will.’ At worst the nihilist’s creed can be heard: ‘Yours is a meaningless existence in a meaningless universe.’ Any person who believes such a creed is liable to achieve literally nothing. Societies in which that is the care are likewise liable to achieve nothing. While nihilism may be understandable in some individuals, as a social creed it is fatal.

Murray indicts not only the idiot academics and self-serving politicians who have been busily eroding or vilifying the cultural and historical inheritance of Western civilization, but also the secular public intellectuals who have denigrated the question of meaning. He quotes from Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, as an example of this latter-day arrogance: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” Murray’s reply is far closer to the truth:

We do not live our lives and experience our existence as solved beings. On the contrary we still experience ourselves, as our ancestors did, as torn and contradictory beings, vulnerable to aspects of ourselves and our world that we cannot understand. […] It is unbearable for us to talk about ourselves as though we are mere cogs in an economic wheel. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know that we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.

As Christianity recedes, as the social and cultural traditions of old Europe are forgotten, Islam alone distinguishes itself by its self-confidence, its vocal assertions of truth and meaning, right and wrong. Should Islam indeed come to predominate in Europe, socially and politically, it will provoke many reactions, but surprise should not be one of them.