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Why The Peace Tax Bill Matters

The Peace Tax Bill is set for a second reading on the 24th of March. This is why it matters...


'Yet all wars, all violent conflicts, end around the negotiating table. We’ve seen it in Columbia, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, and it works.'

In 1916, at the height of the First World War, the British government became the very first in the world to recognise the right of conscientious objection to military service. It wasn’t that conscientious objectors (COs) didn’t want to serve their country or help preserve our way of life, nor was it cowardice; it was simply that they refused to protect the nation through the taking of human life.

The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) formed as a non-violent method for Quakers and other COs to serve the nation while paying due notice to their own consciences. Over a thousand FAU volunteers were sent to war-torn France and Belgium to work on ambulance convoys and trains, bringing injured men home.

When global armed conflict erupted for a second time, the FAU reformed immediately. When the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Quakers globally, the work of the FAU was mentioned.

The problem is, the world has moved on. National Service has ended in most of Europe. We are past the days of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In the modern world, in modern warfare, money equals manpower. Our bodies are no longer physically conscripted because they don’t need to be. All they need to conscript from us is financial support in the form of our taxes. £500 a year. Every year. Straight from your pocket. Spent on war and the weapons to wage it, in the name of ‘defence’ - some of which (Trident anyone?) are designed to never be used! It’s legitimised violence and militarism on a national scale, and few ever think to question it.

This is where Conscience: Taxes For Peace Not War comes in. Since 1979 we have campaigned to update British tax law to reflect the reality of modern war. We’re not asking for money to be taken from the Ministry of Defence and given to the Ministry of Health for example. We’re campaigning to have that money put into a separate fund for non-violent protection of national security. We’re talking development, diplomacy, peace-building; right now, for every £1 spent on those, we spend £35 on war. Yet all wars, all violent conflicts, end around the negotiating table. We’ve seen it in Columbia, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, and it works.

The British government already has a suitable fund for the monies to be directed to - the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Previously known as the Conflict Pool, Conscience is also one of only a few groups to have produced a report into its use and transparency. It has already been put to work in Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to facilitate dialogue between community leaders, electoral reform and demobilisation of armed groups.

However, mostly due to lack of clear monitoring and a seriously underfunded budget, the results have been varied. Pakistan has seen positive effects from the work of the CSSF, including enhanced diplomacy with India. However, the complicated, long-running, multi-party conflict in the Congo represents some unique challenges that require careful analysis with local participation to solve. With more funding, for example from those opposed to paying for war, that’s exactly what the CSSF could provide.

We saw it in post-war Europe with the Marshall Plan - investment in development and diplomacy brings about lasting peace. The removal of desperate human need in pre and post-conflict zones helps to prevent further conflict in the name of fulfilling those desperate needs; when their children are hungry, most people will do anything to feed them, including taking up arms or theft. Those acts create more conflict, and so the cycle of violence continues.

So we come to the Peace Tax Bill. Put before parliament by Ruth Cadbury MP, the Peace Tax Bill would allow COs to redirect that £500 a year that we all pay towards the military, into the CSSF, or a fund like it. As a Quaker, the Bill is a personal matter to Ms Cadbury - both of her grandfathers, as well as many other male relatives, served in the FAU. Her conscience does not tolerate the use, or threat, of violence.

She is not alone. Buddhists, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Humanists all regularly practice pacifism, as do countless others, both for reasons of faith and reasons of conscience. Human rights treaties, both national and international, all recognise the human right to freedom of conscience and religion - a right which has been upheld as regarding conscientious objection in South Korean courts repeatedly.

There is also support elsewhere in parliament. John McDonnell MP tabled the Peace Tax Bill’s predecessor in 1999. Caroline Lucas MP has also been a big supporter. Conscience also has several allies in the SNP. Outside of parliament, legendary actor Sir Mark Rylance is a defender of the rights of COs, a proponent of peace-building, and the public face of the Conscience campaign.

All this support will culminate in the second reading of the Peace Tax Bill on the 24th of March - the first time a Bill that would update the rights of COs to reflect the modern world has passed its first reading. We need your help to make our elected representatives listen.

If your money is being used to fund injustice there is only one choice become as conscientious objector today.