A White Poppy for Conscientious Objectors

And here’s one to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day (May 15th).

Tomorrow, May 15th, is International Conscientious Objectors Day. I’m wearing a White Poppy to mark the occasion.

It’s a day I can feel proud – of my country and of my faith group.

When, during the First World War, parliament reluctantly introduced conscription, the UK became the first country in the world to recognise the right of individuals to refuse to go to war.

Every other country had entered the war with conscript armies.

In Britain, however, there was opposition from politicians, who argued that compulsory military service would be undemocratic, and would undermine our claim to be fighting a war in the name of freedom and justice.

And from churchmen, notably Quaker MPs – like Arthur Rowntree and John Ellis – who believed the state has no right to force individuals to kill fellow human beings if this was against their faith or beliefs.

Thanks to these arguments the Military Service Act of 1916 allowed exemption, on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service’.

Now, I have to admit that this clause was controversial at the time. The tribunals set up to decide individual cases, gave those who claimed this right a very hard time. And the controversy has survived for a very long time. My own father, who fought in the American Army during the Second World War, regarded ‘conscies’ as cowards and traitors.

Nevertheless the argument that Governments should respect individuals’ beliefs has won over most of the world. It’s now enshrined in the UN constitution and recognised in the laws of almost every country.

So today, I’m wearing my White Poppy with pride in both my country and in my church for showing others the way towards what I regard as a fundamental human right.


Script 60 in Each One of Us is Precious also marked International Conscientious Objectors Day but took a slightly different angle

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