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THE weekend of the Labour leadership result was one which I will probably never forget. I was standing in the middle of a road helping to block a truck from entering the world’s largest arms fair when I heard that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected to lead the Labour party.
I was exercising my right to peaceful protest when I heard that Corbyn’s victory was secured by a majority which forced the Labour Party, and the whole political Establishment, to listen. Later that day I was looking at photos of the 50,000-strong crowd marching in solidarity with refugees when I heard the words “humanity,” “equality,” “peace” and “democracy” used by the leader of the second-biggest party in Parliament in his acceptance speech.
On the following Monday the excitement continued among my colleagues at Conscience: Taxes for Peace Not War. Our organisation has enjoyed the long-standing support of Corbyn over the years and John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, backs our Taxes for Peace Bill, which is to be tabled in March of 2016. Both of them have been among the most dedicated advocates for peace in Parliament I have ever known.
Our Taxes for Peace Bill would provide the freedom of conscience to those who are morally, ethically or religiously opposed to war to be able to redirect the military portion of their taxes towards a fund designated for non-military security and conflict resolution.
The Bill is to be introduced on the centenary of the Military Service Act 1916. Britain included the “conscience clause” in this conscription Act — a legally recognised but very limited right of conscientious objection. The government will no doubt celebrate Britain’s leading role in the lawful recognition of conscience, while failing to see that the fight for freedom of the conscientious objector has not yet been won.
We believe that this right is still not fully recognised in British law as we are still financially conscripted into military service through the taxation system. One war tax resister brought the debate up to date perfectly by saying: “It is taken for granted that we contribute taxes for military preparations. This is conscription by proxy because we live in a country where civilian men are no longer required for military service.”
The labour movement need not look far for its involvement in the fight for the rights of conscientious objectors. Tom Attlee, the brother of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, objected — as many did — on socialist grounds, not willing to take up arms against the working people of other nations.
Peggy Attlee, the daughter-in-law of Tom Atlee, still wears the white poppy in recognition of his pacifism. This movement continues to this day, with McDonnell describing conscientious objection to military taxation (COMT) as “an idea whose time has come.” The Labour Party has always stood for peace, internationalism and human rights. Allowing conscientious objectors to invest in peace rather than violence stands proudly as part of this tradition.
Being forced to pay for early graves and intimidation through threat of death and destruction is an issue that goes further than the state. COMT is the option to divert one’s taxes away from nuclear weapons, arms fairs and drone strikes on our own citizens abroad. It is based on a recognised human right, not a political decision.
It is, in fact, already recognised within every significant international treaty. The European Convention on Human Rights, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the British Human Rights Act all testify that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Clearly a tax system that makes big moral decisions on war, conflict and murder without consulting the individuals who pay for it is damaging for individual liberty.
We campaign for this liberty on behalf of those who do not want to have any involvement in war and preparation for war, yet cannot legally avoid being financially conscripted into the military. For many, paying for war violates their freedom of religion. Many Quakers, for example, have been engaged in our campaign because their faith asks them to promote peace, and they must therefore confront their complicity in war. But they are just one among many: Mennonites, Ba’hais, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Haredi Jews all practice conscientious objection for reasons of faith.
We campaign for the right of those individuals who withhold tax or don’t pay tax at all because they equate paying for deliberate killing with doing it themselves, and have no alternative means of exercising their right of conscience. In standing up for their deeply held pacifist beliefs they face prison and bankruptcy. Any system which criminalises citizens for refusing to be complicit in war is clearly in urgent need of reform.
Among debates about renewing Trident, leaving Nato and bombing Syria, our Bill recognises the rights of those who otherwise do not have a say in how their own security is provided. It is a government’s duty to keep its people safe and secure, and that is something we should all contribute to financially. This does not mean, however, that this security can be established through threat of violence and overseas murder.
Corbyn has been a consistent campaigner for adopting a non-military approach to security. This involves investing in the two Ds: development and diplomacy. Building a nation around economic security and dialogue between different groups is a tried and tested approach towards sustainable peace. The alternative, one we are all too familiar with in recent times, is a military approach that causes fear, misery and anger — both here and abroad.
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and negotiator in Northern Ireland, gave us some insight into how a military approach to security is often counterproductive: “If you look back over the last two or three decades we always end up talking to these people [terror groups], once they have enough significant support. You cannot solve a political conflict by military means.”
Peace-building is a more sustainable, effective and economic form of security. It would mean Britain is remembered for saving lives rather than ending them.
The fact that the Labour Party has been strengthened by figures devoted to peace and a different way has certainly given me reason for hope, and maybe a time when non-military security becomes the norm has inched that little bit closer.
What can be achieved much sooner, however, is the individual choice in how our own security is guaranteed and the freedom of conscience to invest in peace. A peace tax would allow citizens to march in solidarity with refugees with the clear conscience and full knowledge that their money did not pay for the bombs that sent them here.
- Holly Wallis is parliamentary officer at Conscience: Taxes for Peace, not War.
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