What to Do about Military Conscription of Your Money

On the Catholic Herald published an article about war tax resistance and the campaign to legalize conscientious objection to military taxation in the U.K.

Military conscription in tax terms

Every adult in this country is paying, on average, over £8 a week towards the military budget. Many — perhaps the majority — would consider this an acceptable financial burden to defend these islands. However, a small but growing group hold that their taxes should not be used for a purpose they consider immoral, and are prepared to go to prison for their beliefs.

The similarities between the Peace Tax Campaign and the conscientious objectors of 60 years ago are obvious. PTC describe the 13.6 per cent of our tax burden which goes on defence as “military conscription in financial terms.” They argue that since the right to refuse to fight was recognised in law as long ago as , a similar conscience clause should now apply to taxation.

To that end the PTC was founded in , and it reached another landmark in its campaign to make the majority recognise the rights and beliefs of the minority with the tabling of an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling on the Government to establish a peace building fund with money diverted by tax objectors.

Alice Mahon, newly-elected Labour MP for Halifax, is behind this latest move. Other motions have been placed before parliament in recent years (by Catholic MP Dennis Canavan amongst others), using time-honoured procedural devices to draw attention to the peace tax campaign, but Ms Mahon has gone further than previously in suggesting a use to which the diverted cash could be used.

Rather than stockpile weapons of destruction, she would like to see a fund which would “break down barriers of race and culture.” Hence the money could be used to promote inter-communal exchanges, east-west visits for ordinary people — “not simply talented sportsmen” but representatives of the community. Alice Mahon sees the fundamental principle at stake as “giving people a choice on how their money is spent.” The campaign may still have a long way to go, but she can see an end in sight in terms of stages — perhaps allowing conscientious objection in fiscal terms to nuclear weapons first, and then extending it to all armaments.

She is aware of the argument that would see such a tax concession, allowing people to make a choice on military matters, as the thin end of the wedge. Would Catholics then be able to divert that part of their taxes that went into NHS coffers to pay for the free distribution of contraceptives to women? Or pro-lifers that part of their fiscal dues that fund NHS abortions?

For Alice Mahon the military argument is a “much larger issue” than either of these two examples, and hence more fundamental to the sound running of a democracy.

If Ms Mahon and the five other newly-elected Labour MPs who have signed the motion are taking parliamentary action to further their cause, others have been more practical. The Peace Tax Campaign has long been associated with the Quakers whose pacifist stance first clashed with state financial policy as long ago as the seventeenth century in Pennsylvania.

However, more recent recruits have been the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bishop Victor Guazzelli, auxiliary in Westminster, the Welsh Presbyterian Church, and political parties — Plaid Cymru and the Greens — as well as individual MPs from all sides of the House of Commons.

Refusing to pay tax on moral grounds is essentially a personal protest. It is presently only open to those who actually earn a wage large enough to warrant income tax, and in practical terms to those who are self-employed or deal with their own tax matters. The reason for this latter qualification is that if a group of workers, or even an individual worker employed by a company, wants to stop paying a percentage of his or her taxes, it is the employer — who is responsible for PAYE contributions — that will be punished by the Inland Revenue.

One outstanding case of an individual refusing to pay the estimated 13.6 per cent of his taxes that goes to the military budget was that of Quaker Arthur Windsor. On he was sent to prison for failing to comply with a court order to pay the sum in tax due. Since it was a civil crime Mr Windsor was eligible for no remission, and served his full sentence. On the day of Mr Windsor’s release, Dennis Canavan introduced the PTC’s first parliamentary procedural device.

And Mr Windsor, who is now being forced to pay off his outstanding debt to the revenue by deductions at source from his state pension, was not alone. To date at least 25 war tax resisters, as they refer to themselves, have been taken to court. Yet still a legal right has not been established although one case went as far as the European Commission for Human Rights which ruled that fiscal policy lay without its jurisdiction.

And it is not only individuals who have risked financial loss for their beliefs. Straight Lines Ltd, a jewellery business in Powys in Wales, was taken to Wrexham court in for failing to pay 13.6 per cent of PAYE contributions on its seven employees and 30 outworkers. Like many other protestors it deducted that amount and sent a separate cheque to the revenue made out to the Overseas Development Administration.

The court ruled against director Martin Philips who described the action as a personal act which he took on behalf of all those who did not wish to put their employers in an embarrassing situation, but who agreed with the PTC.

Two further court actions by the Inland Revenue followed, and finally in the bailiffs came to take assets from Straight Lines to meet the shortfall. After three visits, a till was forced and the tax man satisfied.

Martin Philips has not gone on with his protest, although he does not rule out the possibility at a later date. His debts to the Inland Revenue meant that he received bad listings with credit journals and companies, and consequently his business suffered. He has “no regrets,” but acknowledges that “Straight Lines undoubtedly took a hammering because of it.”

At present there are 3,500 members of the Peace Tax Campaign, but support for it is growing, particularly amongst church bodies and groups. Alice Mahon’s early day motion may never be debated in the chamber, but supporters like Martin Philips and Arthur Windsor will not give up, just as conscientious objectors had to endure vilification and personal loss before their moral conviction was finally recognised in law.