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So you think you live in a free country?

Richard North | 21.12.2004 18:08 | Repression

The experiences of a council tax refusenik, sick of being forced to pay for services he does not receive - and finding out what the real priorities of the police are.

So you think you live in a free country?

You really think that? Well, let me tell you that you do not. On Saturday night, 11.35pm, I had two uniformed policemen at the door, threatening to kick it in unless I opened it. When I opened the window to talk to them, one pushed the window fully open, sweeping the china onto the sink, and climbed into the house.

Were they attending the scene of a serious crime? Forget it - that takes days. Were they dealing with a serious criminal? Well you judge that. While the usual Saturday night mayhem was breaking our in Bradford centre, stretching police resources to breaking point, these policement were out debt collecting - on behalf of the state. And I owed the state money - my outstanding council tax.

Last year, I withheld £80 - that being the amount owed for the police precept - as a protest against the lamentable performance of West Yorkshire Police. Despite the furore over that, they official reaction was nil. Not a thing changed. Not even a glimmer of recognition that I had a just cause, and a reasonable complaint. So this year, I added a nought.

In fact, though - for reasons which I explain below - I have been playing this "game" for years. And yes, there was a bailiff's warrant out on me, and yes I hade been playing "cat and mouse" with him. But he would have caught up with me sooner or later and, at that point, I would have paid. And the warrant stated clearly that "plastic" was acceptable.

But last Saturday night, there was not a bailiff in sight. Instead we had West Yorkshire finest, performing their priority role - debt collection. Never mind what theft, thuggery or mayhem was going on - their priority was debt collection. And, becuase they were the police and not the bailiffs, they could not accept "plastic". It had to be cash - the better part of a thousand quid (with the bailiff's fees added), or go to jail immediately, do not pass go, until Monday, when the banks open and someone could pay the money in.

So you can see the game. North has provoked them and they are going to extract their revenge. Pick a time when the maximum inconvenience and distress is caused, and go in there at a time when it is virtually impossible to get the cash, and pick up North.

Now, this could happen to every one of you that has the fortune and misfortune to own or have a beneficial interest in property – of the bricks and mortar kind. And what it amounts to is that you are only free so long as you pay your annual license fee to the state.

More commonly, this "license" is known as the council tax, for those who actually live in the property they own or rent, but its better description is that of "license". As a tax it makes no sense. It is levied arbitrarily, the charge on the individual bears no relation to his or her ability to pay, and the amount thus extracted bears absolutely no relation to the goods or services supposedly provided.

Furthermore, while you are required as of law to pay for those "services", whether you want them or not, the recipient of your enforced largess offers no reciprocation. You have no rights nor any sanction if those services that you do need or desire – which the state purports to supply – and if they fall short of the minimum expected, you must still pay – and pay, and pay.

For, each year, the state comes back with its hand out, and each year, the amount it demand increases – way above the rate of inflation - yet each year there is no discernible improvement in services and, in many respects, the quality of services claimed to be provided seem to decline.

But most crucially, unlike any other debt, there is no negotiation or recourse to the normal edicts of civil law; no appeal that the taxmasters were charging you more than you could bear; that they were unjust. The equation is simple: pay up or go to jail. You are not free men and women. The default position in this society for every person subject to this iniquitous tax is prison – we stave it off only by our annual subventions of Danegeld to the ravening monster, and we pay, whether we like it or not.

And we do pay - or you do. You grumble, we chaff, some write to newspapers, some to your MPs. You debate, you have discourses, and you vote for councillors and MPs – but none of these activities have any influence on the rate and nature of this tax. It stays, and each year it goes up. And you pay - but some of us go to prison.

So what should you do? Says Henry David Thoreau – the grandfather of civil disobedience – you are guided by your conscience. In his "papers on civil disobedience" he writes:

"If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."

He writes many other things on this topic, and many of those things apply to the iniquitous council tax. For instance, he suggests that:

"All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable… All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer…"

Another quote from him that I particularly like is:

"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."

And then, in respect of each and every one of you individually, he writes:

"Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."

"Action from principle," he writes — which he defines as "the perception and the performance of right" — "changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."

So, not paying my council tax until they come to get me is an act of folly? It is a useless, puerile gesture, which causes me and those close to me great hardship and distress? It is a waste of time – after all, you cannot beat City Hall?

All right, maybe it is all of that. But it is also an act of principle. And, as Thoreau says: "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." I agree with Thoreau on this and if, as I do, you think council tax is unjust - nay iniquitous – that the automatic penalty for non-payment is imprisonment, whatever the provocation, is a disgrace and a negation of the very concept of freedom, then what right do you have to pay it, without protest, each and every year? What right have you to roll over and take the easy way out, for convenience, for an easy life, or because you simply cannot be bothered to fight City Hall?

And here Thoreau has it in one. He writes of "obligation" – "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." That is the view I take, and I think the council tax – for all the reasons state – is a vile, perverse tax. To try my best to frustrate it is, as I see it, not an option. It is an obligation.

So, I spent Saturday night, all of Sunday and the better part of Monday in a 9ft x 9ft cell. What did you do with your weekend?

Richard North
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