Conscience and Global Net 21 Team Up to Discuss the Taxes for Peace Bill

by Shaughan Dolan ~ November 29th, 2016. Filed under: News.

On Wednesday the 16th of November, Conscience teamed up with Global Net 21 to host an evening of discussion on the Taxes for Peace Bill. Our campaign manager Shaughan Dolan started the evening by pointing out that the unknown consequences of armed intervention in international conflict have led to less public support for war over the years. We can see this in our recent history; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been protested in ways that would have been unimaginable a century ago.

Ruth Cadbury MP is one of two Quakers currently holding a seat in the House of Commons. She began by explaining the purpose of the Taxes for Peace Bill, as well as the significance of its timing to fit with the centenary of the Military Service Act; the first in the world to enshrine the right of conscientious objection in law. The Taxes for Peace Bill would extend that right to freedom of conscience to the tax system. Both of Ruth’s grandfathers chose to serve in the Friends Ambulance Service during the Second World War; rather than fight their fellow man, they chose to help him. Ruth reminded us that it is recommended in both national and international treaties that all people be allowed to express their conscience, and that right has to evolve with our society and our technology. War has changed in the last century to a point where it would be unrecognisable to the likes of Napoleon. Gone are the huge standing armies of the past, in the age of Mutual Assured Destruction and drones wars are fought with money, not men. This new reality leads to a conflict of conscience in the tax system – how can a conscientious objector pay their taxes in the knowledge that a significant percentage will be used wage war? They are left with a choice – keep their income below a taxable level, or commit a criminal offence by withholding their taxes.


Ms Cadbury went on to point out that modern conscientious objectors still want to contribute to the security of the societies in which they live. They just want the non-military options to be utilised to create a ‘more effective and humane foreign policy’. The UK government already directs money into peace-building and peace-keeping, although the amount is woefully low – £1 for every £35 spent on military methods. The Conflict Security and Stability Fund, established by the coalition government as the successor to the Conflict Pool, would be an appropriate option for the portion of conscientious objector’s taxes that would usually go to the military. The fund already exists and is already being used around the world to explore and promote peace-building. There is an argument that this constitutes hypothecation, which already exists in the British system (think television licence, gift aid, sugar tax and tampon tax), but as Ruth put it, ‘this is about conscience’ and about demonstrating that non-military intervention is both ‘effective and practical.’ There would be no logistic difficulty implementing a Peace Tax as the HMRC systems are already digitised, providing a breakdown of where tax money is directed to each of us at the end of every tax year. Ruth went on to say that the Taxes for Peace Bill would help the government to regain the trust of taxpayers after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and acknowledge the rights of individuals. However, a lack of support from the two main political parties and the need for more vocal support from the general public has meant that this time, the Taxes for Peace Bill will not receive its second reading.

‘You get the world you pay for. Let’s allow the right to pay taxes for peace, not war.’

Make Wars History’s founder Chris Coverdale began his portion of the evening by pointing out that there are no war lawyers in the United Kingdom, outside of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His own studies of international and national laws and treaties on war have led to his firm belief that we all have a legal duty to withhold our tax money for as long as it is used to fund the military. The staggering numbers of war dead, 1.25 million, including 600,000 children under 18, since 2001 have further compelled Chris to withhold his own taxes from the British government since 1998, which saw him bankrupted in 2006 and imprisoned for 42 days in 2015.

Chris’ own investigation of over five million words on the laws of war, written in statutes, conventions, acts and bills, have lead him to the conclusion that there are essentially ten rules of war; never wage an aggressive war; never threaten or use force; never fund the fatal use of firearms or explosives (whether through state-waged war or terrorism); never intervene in another state’s internal affairs; never harm a person because of their nationality; respect everybody’s right to life; uphold the rule of law; uphold human rights; settle disputes peacefully; and cooperate with other states in fraternity to maintain international peace and security. Chris’ studies have led him to conclude that war, as it is currently waged by governments around the world in the modern age, is illegal.

Chris has publicly called for what he calls a ‘civil obedience campaign’ to obey these laws and withhold our taxes until we can be assured by our government that they will not use them to fund militarism. Chris concluded with five clear points; there are no ‘Just Wars’, all wars are illegal; there is a moral imperative for us to withhold our taxes; violence is only ever legal in self-defence; we are obliged under national and international law not to pay our taxes until they are no longer used to fund the military; and finally that collective tax resistance is effective in bringing about change.


Conscience’s own Shaughan Dolan began his section of the evening by asking a question of the audience – how much military spending is too much? In a time where the US Navy possesses a battleship with a gun that costs $600,000 every time it is fired, and where the average British taxpayer would have to work for a million years to pay enough tax for a Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, we can all agree that schools, hospitals and housing are missing out on desperately needed funds because of the colossal funds directed to the military. £35 billion a year goes to the military in Britain, £17 billion to international development but only £1.5 billion to diplomacy and other non-military methods of conflict resolution. Conscience has always taken issue with this spending split and has campaigned since 1979 to secure the right to conscientious objection to military taxation.

Shaughan rightly pointed out that people cannot defend a human right that they don’t know they have. The right to freedom of conscience and what that means to the individual is paid little attention – people simply assume that they exercise it through the decisions they make in their daily life and don’t think about how it could be applied on a national or global scale.

Shaughan echoed our friends at MedAct’s assertion that war is a massive public health issue, and as with disease, prevention is better than cure. 187 million people died in armed conflicts around the globe in the 20th century; more than were killed by the now eradicated smallpox virus. In modern warfare 90% of wartime deaths are civilians, not soldiers, a complete reversal of numbers over the course of the 20th century; in 1900 90% of wartime fatalities were soldiers. By challenging the popular conception of military intervention as a solution to conflict, instead demonstrating that war is rarely a solution to anything and creates further conflict, division and misery, we can push our government to consider other options more thoroughly. For a new generation of conscientious objectors, war is a human rights issue and a public health issue as well as a matter of conscience.

During the discussion section of the evening, one audience member asked about avoiding prison when withholding their taxes. Chris was quick to assure them that imprisonment happens only to the extremely determined conscientious objectors as you can pay what you owe at any time to avoid prison. Shaughan told us about some very inventive methods of paying the military portion of taxes levied that some Conscience members have employed over the years, including delivering a coffin full of pennies to HMRC (they processed it!) and a baker who paid the military portion of his taxes in bread! The spectacle of withholding tax creates debate, publicity and provokes thought in others, sowing the seeds of change.


Another question posed to our panel was ‘who polices the laws of war?’ It is a simple question, with a difficult answer. The short answer is no one. Since 1946 there have been at least 25 wars that are easily categorised as illegal under international law, yet no one has been held to account. The International Criminal Court has focused mainly on corrupt African warlords, who should be asked to pay for their crimes, yet war crimes committed by Western leaders have gone unchecked. Chris has had extensive contact with Scotland Yard’s War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Unit but has never seen a single prosecution. We have international laws, we have we have international laws, we have international courts, and they should apply to Western leaders as much as any others.

Thank you to everyone who attended and made the event a success!


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