Above Photo: via Defence Images/Flickr
On 19th July an extraordinary bill was tabled in the UK parliament. The proposal,presented by Brentford and Isleworth MP Ruth Cadbury, seeks to allow citizens to divert the portion of their taxes that would ordinarily pay for military operations into a conflict prevention fund instead.
The bill passed its first reading, is backed by the Green’s Caroline Lucas, and will receive its second reading on 2 December. If it succeeds the UK will set a historic precedent as the first country to allow citizens “to get the world you pay for” – with a chance to pay for peace not war.
And it could possibly curtail the UK government’s freedom to embark on wars, with the reduced financial means to do so.
During WWI, when conscription to military service was in place, the UK set a similar precedent. In the 1916 Military Service Act, one of the legal grounds for exemption from service was:
a conscientious objection to the undertaking of military service
Those who objected to war for conscientious reasons, largely of a religious nature at that stage, could apply to a Local Tribunal for exemption on that basis. The UK was the first country to do so.
That right is now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in numerous countries around the world.
The income tax non-military spending bill aims to extend that same principle to the money UK taxpayers give to the government, due to the changed nature of how conflict occurs in the modern world:
Today we are not conscripted to fight; instead, our taxes are conscripted to pay for the cost of sustaining a modern professional army and the technology it wields.
We are therefore complicit in a system of killing by proxy which interferes with established principles protecting individuals of thought, conscience and religion from unjust force from the state.
Putting money where your mouth is
Traditionally, an objection due to religious belief often meant an opposition to wars completely, no matter why they were being waged. That’s why conscientious objection generally came with the label ‘pacifist’, because those rejecting service for religious reasons were against violence unconditionally.
In fact, in the US the very definition of a conscientious objector is:
a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.
UK citizens are very used to not ‘bearing arms’ in a country with strict gun laws. But whether many would be comfortable with objecting to “war in any form”, and removing their tax pounds from paying for it, is questionable.
The UK government’s current definition is:
A conscientious objector is someone who can show that the performance of military service would require his participation in military action contrary to his genuine religious or moral convictions.
And it makes a distinction between “absolute” and “partial” objection, with the latter meaning opposition to a particular conflict.
It would be fair to assume that a significant portion of the population believe that military action is sometimes necessary, and the country needs the military infrastructure in place for the moments it is. Indeed, in a recent YouGov poll on the issue of Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons capacity, a considerable amount of pollsters indicated support for the weaponry, with 59% saying they would push the nuclear button themselves.
However, the UK has just been subjected to the Chilcot report on the Iraq war, which found gross negligence, manipulation, and lies on the part of then prime minister Tony Blair and those banging the drum for war. Surely, after seeing the devastation that war caused, Iraq in ruins and terrorism on the rise, many would relish the chance to ensure they don’t fund any future erroneous conflicts.
Opposition to the Iraq war was fierce, over one million people marched in the streets of London alone on 15 February 2003 – 30 million people worldwide – to protest the war. There was also ample hostility to David Cameron’s aerial bombardment of Libya in 2011, and his more recent push for the same in Syria.
But in all these cases people’s voices fell on deaf political ears. If the population were able to protest against these reckless, and often dubiously motivated, decisions through the money they provide to the government in taxes, it could have a profound impact.
It would give those against such military interventions a concrete sense that their beliefs are being put into action. It could impact on whether politicians make the choice to go to war – with a portion of treasury funds being safeguarded for peacemaking efforts. Although, with the current Conservative government it is entirely possible it would simply use the situation to further its ideological dream of dismantling the state, and withdraw funds from vital public services to make up for the shortfall.
As the income tax non-military spending bill, or peace bill, notes, the mechanisms are already in place to enable the plan to go ahead. HMRC calculates the proportion of each individual’s tax contribution, based on income. And the UK already has programs dedicated to conflict prevention to which the ‘peace tax’ could be funnelled:
The UK is a world leader in sponsoring conflict prevention initiatives by means other than armed force and, through mechanisms such as the Conflict Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), greatly contributes to global peace and security through non-military means.
By enabling citizens to redirect the proportion of their income tax that goes to the military towards a non-military security fund such as the CSSF and its successors, this Bill will allow all citizens, to be able to contribute to the tax system with a clear conscience.
The bill requires some nuance, to accommodate those who believe that some military expenditure is necessary. It could easily allow for citizens to indicate what proportion of their tax money that would ordinarily be feed into the military budget they would like withdrawn. It cannot be an all or nothing proposition, or it will fall flat.
Of course, it will face serious opposition by the political class, who like to spend our money how they please. Currently, it has faced criticism in the political sphere for creating a hypothecated tax – dedicating a particular tax for a particular purpose – which is discouraged, although it exists in some cases. Politicians fear that if the ‘golden rule’ of parliament choosing what taxes are used for is broken, more demands will be forthcoming – such as a dedicated tax for the NHS.
But, as it is public money, should we have more of a say over how it is spent? That’s the question that will be pondered in parliament at the peace bill’s next hearing on the 2 December.
And if the answer is yes, the public may get a choice over its complicity in the wars its government wages. The people’s money will do the talking, and politicians will have no choice but to listen.