The real Crexit

By - Wednesday 22nd June, 2016

Croydon’s local divisions are both more interesting and more revealing than the national debate, says James Naylor

Croydon shortly after the last EU referendum; the town has been transformed in recent years by people working hard to improve it, not by people trying to leave it.
Photo by John Shepherd, used under Creative Commons licence.

First: an apology. You may well be sick of referendum coverage by now. Misleading slogans, misused patriotism, the fears of immigration or economic collapse stoked by an apparently endless army of columnists, and every day a fresh lineup of experts from some field or another telling you that the effects of a remain/leave vote will be apocalyptic. And yet here I am, with yet more opinion.

The truth is that I’m sick of it too. And while I strongly encourage you to read the other excellent pieces opposite, because they are about the real, local impact of this vote, I will cut to the chase and get this part out of the way:

I think that you should vote to stay.

If we leave, major employers will likely re-locate to within the Eurozone. Our fast growing technology sector will stall without talented programmers. Farming will suffer. And, most of all, we could end up having to renegotiate a trading agreement which will still make us subject to the free movement of labour and substantial European regulations without any power to change them. There is no clear economic plan for the alternative; only that we’ll ‘work it out’. Taking that risk doesn’t make sense when the gains are a highly nebulous notion of ‘sovereignty’ and some emotional worries about immigration.

But this piece isn’t about what we can get for ourselves. It’s about a way of thinking that will be with us long after 23rd June 2016. It’s about the real Crexit.


A full ten years before the last time that we were here for the 1975 referendum, the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District was wrested from Surrey and forcibly merged with the old County Borough of Croydon to form the London borough that we know today. From the beginning it was not a happy union. The district requested exclusion but, unlike Caterham or Warlingham, they were denied. The MP for Surrey East tried to amend the Local Government Bill to block it, but that failed too. So, with much disgruntlement on the tragicomic date of 1st April, Coulsdon, Purley, Sanderstead, Selsdon and Kenley became unwilling satellites of Croydon, its new southern extremity.

Now I am wondering, in the topsy-turvy world of the new politics, if ‘Crexit’ is so unimaginable

Despite now being a part of London, many people refused to regard themselves as such. In their mind, their towns were Surrey, through and through; archetypal leafy, white and middle class commuter dormitories they even called “villages” at times; a far cry from the industrialised, denser, more multicultural, poorer and urban places, one of which ’60s Croydon was already becoming. Resident’s associations tried to fight the issue and they wrote Surrey resolutely on their envelopes and would scoff at the suggestion that this was part of the metropolis.

But over time things did begin to change. Save a couple of small secessions (such as Hooley’s in 1969), people’s view of where they were softened and by the time that I grew up in Coulsdon, the sense became more that we were a sub-suburb of Croydon, even if you didn’t want to tell people that Croydon is where you were from because of its reputation. After all, it was the big town that you did your shop in and the place that you went out in. At the same time, Coulsdon itself was no longer the same place. It was poorer, more diverse and had begun to have one of those impossible-to-put-your-finger-on looks of an inner London town. Surely, these people wouldn’t want to leave.

When we started putting together this month’s edition of the Croydon Citizen news magazine, I recalled something that I (or likely anyone else) had not thought about in a while: Ken Livingstone’s promise to give the south of the borough a referendum of their membership of Croydon: a true Crexit. As a transparent vote winning tactic that could gerrymander the regional government it was hard to take seriously then. But now I am wondering, in the topsy-turvy world of the new politics, if this is so unimaginable.

Not long ago, the EU wasn’t a major issue. It seemed that membership was a comic issue, limited to the weak satire about bendy bananas. But in recent months it has turned into a harder and more generally fought political battle than even a general election. All because the question is even on the table by an act of cabinet fiat. What would happen if we really put Ken’s referendum on the table in Croydon?

Perhaps the desire for Brexit is the same desire to escape the thing that feels, right now, like it might be collapsing

What limited evidence we do have suggests that the south would choose to go descisively. In 2012 the Advertiser reported that 62% of surveyed southern residents still regarded themselves as part of Surrey, and plenty of individuals were prepared to go on record as saying that they’d vote to leave.

And yet such a move would seem practically pointless.

Regardless of what local council these areas sat in, these areas would not physically change. The gradual urban spread of London would continue unabated, just as it has into home counties in general. People would still have to travel to work or shop in Croydon and the same people would come to live from other parts in the south. The proximity, the physical transport connections and the socioeconomic relationships created by them would be unchanged.

But then the pull of the Crexit doesn’t seem to be rational. It’s far more about not wanting to be associated with Croydon: the urban grime, the stabbings, the shootings, the riots. It’s about people “hankering for an era”, as the chairman of the Bourne Society neatly summarised; for the world before the ’65 merger and for an idea of Surrey as a wooded but tamed wilderness close to London, dotted with tiny chocolate box villages. It doesn’t matter that this world already no longer existed when the south was incorporated; that they had been vast identikit suburbs connected to central London by continuous urban development thirty years before their merger.

Is the EU question really so different except insofar as we feel like it’s a more rational question? Anti-EU sentiment is strong in the same place. Despite Croydon South’s historically safe Tory seat status, UKIP won more than 10% of the vote last year. Perhaps the desire for Brexit is the same desire to escape the thing that feels, right now, like it might be collapsing. To withdraw from the big, scary, imperfect world in order to return (impossibly) to an imagined time when the UK was fiercely independent, and powerful in of itself; something that happened long before most brexiters were born.

If so, it’s fearful and profoundly sad. Because to me, when things look bad that’s the time to act to improve them, not to escape them. Croydon’s fortunes finally seem to be turning around and things are happening here. It’s more vibrant and more prosperous with more opportunities than before only because of the people who contribute to it, many of whom are from the south. Right now Europe, with many economic challenges (but significant advantages and opportunities), is in need of such spirit at a much larger scale.

Croydon taught me that when things are bad it’s time to stand together. It’s your choice if you think that the same is true of Europe.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Robert Ward

    Leaving aside the highly unnecessary inclusion of Remain propaganda, particularly the breathtaking careless dismissal of sovereignty, let’s talk about Croydon.

    No matter how you draw boundaries, there will always be variations within them. Croydon as currently defined has the advantage that it is roughly evenly split between Tories and Labour. That should lead to a healthy democratic discussion and political parties that are sensitive to the needs of its people rather than a one party state, for example the likes of Rotherham. My observation is that it does not, which might be fixable by a directly elected mayor, an idea that has been proposed but about which more needs to come out before we can judge whether it is the best option.

    • James Naylor

      Hi Robert! Thanks for reading. Sorry to hear that you found some of it to be propaganda.

      I wanted to cover the broad “In” arguments I have personally found very persuasive so far but didn’t really have the space to go into them in depth; these particular subjects have been put forward far better elsewhere. I should also note here that I am perfectly in favour of a European super state in the future though would like to see that only emerge by the gradual consent of its nations over a long timescale.

      Sovereignty for me this has been one of the most problematic areas of the campaign. I think because I do genuinely find it to be a nebulous idea. Countries are generally not free to do as they like regardless of what degree of sovereignty they theoretically have. I’ve always found the precise nature of a country’s ability to execute on specific policy to be more relevant. The practical constraints of diplomatic relationships or the nature of its economy, greatly decreases a country’s real-world options even if they have the sovereignty to theoretically take action. But I am always open to be being persuaded if I’ve missed something key about it here.

      But as you rightly suggest, this piece is really much more about Croydon. On that note, I’m a big supporter of the idea of a directly elected mayor. They have a chance to becoming a recognisable power figure in Croydon and – provided they have the right powers – might be able to execute better than our current system.

  • Anne Giles

    Fantastic, James! I hope lots of people read your article before they go and vote tomorrow. I have two large “Remain” posters on our front window. I have also forwarded Gavin Barwell’s e-mail on this subject on to some of my neighbours. We all need families and Europe is our family. No man is an island.