#100YearsOfConscience

by Outreach ~ February 17th, 2016. Filed under: News.

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In today’s society, pushing back against militarism still very much feels like swimming against the tide.

As countering militarism goes, tax is a controversial angle to take. It is one, however, that fundamentally addresses militarism in society by challenging the dogma that as part of a liberal democracy we will pay for others to do something we wouldn’t in all conscience do ourselves, and significantly, have the basic human right to not participate in ourselves.

It is taken for granted that we pay taxes for military purposes, those who think or attempt to do otherwise are dismissed – such as the Peace Tax Seven, whose case was refused a hearing at three different courts.

In standing up for our individual objection to war, we are fighting the same fight as those who preceded us in the twentieth century – imagining a world where people are not marginalised or dismissed for fighting militarism, and where total exemption from war is not only recognised, but the norm.


A supporter’s story of her father’s experience of conscientious objection

My Father didn’t become a dentist. War broke out and he had to leave University. When pressed, he would tell me stories about the war tribunal ‘allowing’ him to work in Herefordshire, ‘on the land’ with his older sister, how others were less lucky, went to prison, got sent down the mines during the Second World War. The tribunals were presided over by lawyers, and their questioning was thorough. Many would-be Conscientious Objectors were called selfish, irresponsible, false, and sent to prison.

Dad commented often on the price of vegetables, “Carrots, only six pence a pound! Think of the work involved! You wouldn’t want to sow, weed, water, lift, transport, display, sell those for six pence a pound!” He wouldn’t eat watercress or sprouts, remembering the agonies of chilblains and split fingers from hand-picking these in freezing weather. On day trips away from Birmingham, he would talk about spending hours trying to drive pigs to market, how pigs were wilful, playful creatures, couldn’t be led, couldn’t be driven. It was a trick, a test played on the Conchies by the regular farm workers, getting the pig to market without too much damage.

He was less willing to talk about refusing to sign up to serve King and country and having to leave Birmingham University. Despite being the same religion, his brother signed up and qualified, and went on to become the well-off member of the family.

And Dad wouldn’t talk about the hostility, mockery, jeering about being a ‘Conchie Coward’. “They didn’t mean it, they didn’t understand”, he’d say. He didn’t talk about his double hernia from digging and lifting. Other Conscientious Objectors got thrown into ponds, beaten up, and were too embarrassed to get medical help. Some took part in medical research, being given scabies and lice and experimental treatments. Others were given privation diets for long periods, to test survival. Of the 16,000 COs in WW1, over a third went to prison. The 61,000 COs in WW2 were treated a little better.

Chamberlain and Bevin said that many COs had shown as much courage as others.  A recent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery exhibition about Quakers in the First World War asks the question, ‘Confronted by war and suffering, what would you do?’ There is a long history of people refusing to follow orders to kill, challenging the idea that killing another human is any sort of simple solution to complex problems. Many socialists fought conscription, in addition to religious groups (for example Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians, as well as Quakers). And as long ago as 1757, the Military Ballot Act exempted some groups from war on the grounds of conscience, and, more recently, the United Nations declaration of Human Rights, and the UK Human Rights Act of 1998 enshrine this as a right.

Today, the organisation Conscience campaigns for the right to pay taxes towards peaceful security, not war, supporting a parliamentary bill in 2016, the 100 years anniversary of the Military Service Act. There is little moral difference between actually firing lethal weapons and paying someone else to do so.

A monument in Tavistock Square is the focus of an annual day commemorating COs.

Rachel Robinson


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