conscience does not advocate the act of withholding tax. For those concerned about paying taxes for war, there are alternatives to war tax resistance available – conscience provides information about these on our ‘get involved’ page. The alternatives are an effective form of protest for those seeking long-term political change. However, if you decide that your conscience still directs you to withhold the part of your taxes that funds war, or preparations for war, conscience will be able to put you in contact with others who have taken a similar stand and can offer you information on what to expect.
war tax resistance
We are all obliged to pay tax. Almost 6% of all the tax we pay – income tax, VAT, fuel tax, road tax, national insurance – is destined to be used by the military.
On the grounds of conscience, some people choose to withhold the military portion of their taxes until they have been assured that it will not be spent on the military. These conscientious objectors are War Tax Resisters.
Most people are unable to become war tax resisters because all of their tax is taken at source (income tax by PAYE). However, if you complete a tax return each year, it is possible to withhold taxes for war – see I refuse (below) for more information.
War Tax Resisters do not try to reduce the amount of tax they are required to pay – they will pay all of their taxes if assured by the government that they will not contribute to military spending. However, the government is yet to give such assurance. Instead, it prefers to pass war tax resisters on to HM Revenue and Customs, who then become responsible for recovering the amount of tax owed.
War tax resistance should not be taken on lightly. It is a time-consuming struggle and will likely result in legal and financial consequences for anybody who attempts to do so. In the past, war tax resisters have commonly been fined and prosecuted (sometimes through the Courts); more rarely, individuals have faced bankruptcy and prison sentences.
The irreconcilable conflict between present tax laws and the ability to obey one’s conscientious objection to resist war underlines the need for the introduction of new legislation in the UK.
key events in war tax resistance
The relationship between taxes and war is longstanding and examples of tax resistance are as old as taxation itself. The first case of war tax resistance in England perhaps comes from the early 13th century, when King John of England chose to tax his subjects in order to raise the money needed to go to war with France. Having considered the war an enormous waste of money, his subjects were hugely aggrieved by this decision and marched the streets of London in protest.
henry david thoreau
One of the more famous incidences of war tax resistance is that of philosopher Henry David Thoreau. In July 1846, Thoreau refused to pay six years of poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American war. As a result, Thoreau spent the night in prison, although was prematurely freed the following day, when his aunt chose to pay the due taxes on his behalf. The experience left a deep impression on Thoreau and, in 1849, he published an essay entitled Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau argues for individuals not to allow government to refuse their conscience and endorses protest as the most effective means of instigating governmental change. Although Thoreau’s actions were not able to stop the war against which he was standing, his influence remains hugely significant for many war tax resisters today.
One of the key successes in the history of war resistance in the UK could be considered the end of compulsory military enrolment (conscription). Conscription in the UK existed from 1916 to 1919 and then again from 1939 to 1960. Following its introduction in 1916, the pacifist No-Conscription Fellowship succeeded in securing the ‘conscience clause’ in the 1916 Conscription Act. This enabled individuals to claim exemption from British military service on the grounds of conscience – something that over 16,000 men chose to do. The end of conscription in 1919 was unfortunately, only a temporary achievement and conscription returned to Britain during the Second World War, lasting until 1960. However the ‘conscience clause’ still remained and conscientious objectors to war were exempt from participating. Although conscription is, today, no longer a relevant issue in the UK, its diminished importance comes hand in hand with a new focus. Rather than rely on conscripts, national defence now looks increasingly to the development of lethal and high-technology military artillery. Even though military service is no longer obligatory, paying taxes to fund our increasingly technological wars is. This is why conscience continues to campaign for the conscientious right of individuals to withhold taxes for military spending and divert them toward peacebuilding initiatives instead. Taxes for peace, not war, is the next logical step in a world where we are no longer required to fight for our country.
‘One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust,
and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to
arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in
reality expressing the highest respect for law’
– Martin Luther King Jr. 1963. Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Some people are directed by their conscience not to pay for war. They find that paying taxes for military purposes deeply and painfully affronts their conscience and, in order to honour that conscience, want to withhold or re-direct the part of their taxes that funds war, or preparations for war. If you are one of these people, this page has some basic information on who is able to withhold taxes; how to do so; and the likely consequences of such action.
The information on this page is not a definitive statement of the law. Anyone planning war tax resistance should seek professional legal advice.
can I avoid contributing to the military?
We are often asked if it is possible to avoid paying taxes for war preparations. The military budget is financed through both direct and indirect taxation. This means that everyone, regardless of whether or not they pay income tax, contributes towards the military budget from their everyday expenditure. In this sense, it is almost impossible for anyone to entirely avoid paying for the military.
If you are taxed under PAYE, are a pensioner, student, or unwaged, withholding or diverting tax is particularly difficult. Because, generally, you will not have to complete a tax return, any taxable income that you do receive will likely be taxed at source. Consequently, most people within these groups are not in a position to withhold or divert tax.
As an individual who is either self-employed, an employer, or receives an income that is not taxed at source (through e.g. property rentals), it is likely that you will have to complete a tax return. As a result, for those that fall within one of these groups, the decision to engage in the diversion or withholding of war taxes is a possibility.
If you are unable to withhold or divert tax do not let that stop you from lobbying your MP, MEP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Prime Minister. You could also try to spread the message by seeking support from local peace and human rights groups, or from any religious group, political party or trade union of which you may be a member.
If your conscience directs you not to pay for war, you may choose to withhold part of your taxes until HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) can assure you that your taxes will not be used for military means. People who choose this course of action usually write to HMRC informing them that the withheld tax has been deposited in a separate account and will be paid (with interest) when the proper assurance has been given.
If you take this course of action there will be financial consequences and, sooner or later, HMRC will demand that you pay up or face legal action. Any decision to withhold tax should not be taken lightly and professional legal advice should always be sought.
Rather than simply withhold tax, some people choose to try and divert their taxes so that their money does not go to the military. This may be achieved by earmarking cheques to the HMRC that are made out to specific government departments (the Department of Health and Department for International Development have been popular in the past). Such cheques are generally either returned or ‘mistakenly’ paid into the HMRC account. Because the HMRC will normally respond to a diverted cheque by asking you to make the cheque out correctly, you should have the option to pay and avoid legal proceedings while still making your point.
what are the legal consequences of diverting or withholding taxes?
If you decide that you wish to continue to withhold taxes, it is likely that your possessions will be seized and you may be taken to court by the HMRC. It is, however, always possible to pay at any stage, having taken the matter as far as you feel able.
In an attempt to settle your debt, the HMRC will value your possessions for their potential sale at auction. This will involve a visit from an HMRC representative and/or bailiffs. After such a visit, you will be given five days to pay the due sum, before your possessions are removed for sale.
Following this, if a sufficient sum is still owed, your case will be taken to the courts. If, upon receipt of a court order, you still choose not to pay the owed taxes, there are a number of possibilities:
- property belonging to you held by a third person (such as money in a bank account) may be transferred directly to the HMRC
- if you are still receiving an income, you may find money deducted directly from your wage at source
- you may be declared bankrupt (this has happened on three occasions)
- you may be sent to prison (this has happened on four occasions).
If you do decide to withhold or divert war taxes, always inform the HMRC of what you are doing and why. This can help to maintain a more pleasant atmosphere and makes it clear to them that, even though what you are doing is illegal, you are not setting out to deliberately cheat or lie to them. Despite this, it is important to remember that all tax unpaid by the due date will be subject to substantial interest charges as well as other costs.
For more detailed information on the procedures regarding war tax resistance, please contact conscience.