Amid many more apparently momentous events, very few people have been aware that a small and very lonely but brave battle for something at the core of Christian civilization has been fought and lost by, of all people, a Grand Duke, in, of all places, Luxembourg.
The Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg has lost executive veto power on legislation for doing, quite legally, what a constitutional ruler is apparently not supposed to do — exercise his conscience on behalf of his people.
Grand Duke Henri refused to sign into law a bill legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, which would allow doctors to kill terminally people who asked repeatedly and had the consent of two doctors and a “panel of experts.”
This follows the experience of neighboring Holland, where voluntary euthanasia has rapidly expanded so that involuntary euthanasia — i.e. murder — has been barely, if at all, punished in cases where only the barest fig leaf of rationalization has been offered and consent has been problematical at best. Victims of the Dutch euthanasia laws have reputedly included children and people suffering from transitory depression, as well as people unable to communicate their wishes on the matter.
Luxembourg’s prime minister backed the bill even though his own Christian Social People’s Party opposed it. It was passed with the predictable support of the Greens (who all over the world seem to have a rather favorable attitude to legalizing killing people) and the Socialists, by 30 votes to 26.
As a result of the Grand Duke’s opposition, Article 34 of Luxembourg’s constitution has been changed by the Parliament to strip him of veto power. When Parliament votes on the third reading of the euthanasia bill, the Grand Duke will be forced to enact it. The price of obeying his conscience and religious faith has been that he has been reduced to a pointless cipher.
Constitutional monarchs are not supposed to make waves or intervene in politics, but this is a matter on convention and prudence, rather than law. The English Constitutional commentator Walter Bagehot claimed a Constitutional Monarch had three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. Bagehot’s commentary, however, is not law, even in Britain. It is rather a description of the way things have come to work in Western constitutional monarchies. Actually, constitutional monarchs and their representatives in different countries have on occasion shown that they can be more than the ventriloquist’s dummies of politicians.
In Spain in 1981 King Juan Carlos moved effectively to end an attempted anti-democratic coup.
In Australia in 1975 the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, used the undefined and unjusticiable “reserve powers” to sack the shambolic and scandal-ridden Whitlam Labor Government and call an election. Although Sir John Kerr’s action was controversial, it has never been seriously held by constitutional experts that he acted illegally. There is no reason for supposing that the British monarch does not have similar reserve powers to intervene as a last resort in Britain (the powers are unjusticiable and cannot be defined or limited by a court because the circumstances in which they might be used cannot be foreseen), but this has perhaps been felt too delicate a matter to explore much.
In Italy in 1943 the constitutional monarch King Victor Emmanuel finally sacked Mussolini, but had left it too late to save himself or his throne — he had rubber-stamped Mussolini’s crimes for too long when the going was good, including failing to protect his Jewish subjects from Mussolini’s Nazi-aping anti-Semitism. In Denmark, on the other hand, King Christian X is widely credited with having inspired resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism during World War II, despite Denmark being occupied by a German Army.
Bagehot argued that the great benefit of a monarchial system is that it makes the ideals as well as the workings of government widely obvious. A monarch without virtue, moral strength and the courage of convictions and conscience, or — which perhaps comes to the same thing — the ability to exercise them, undermines the system and institution.
It would seem, as journalist Michael Cook has pointed out, that Grand Duke Henri believed that he could not decline personal responsibility for allowing fellow citizens to be killed, no matter how much political pressure was applied. Cook added: “But even a Grand Duke is a man, not a machine. Had he signed the euthanasia bill, his fellow-citizens could easily have thought euthanasia is consistent with democracy and human rights. But it is not.… It cheapens human life and corrupts the medical profession. It has immense potential for abuse.”
The Grand Duke’s stand appears to have achieved nothing except to have lost him and his heirs a constitutional prerogative and to have reduced him to a mannequin. It may, of course have served as an example of moral courage to inspire his country’s citizens, but we will probably not know the political results for some time.
Meanwhile, I am reminded of a Punch cartoon published in the First World War, featuring Grand Duke Henri’s relative, the King of the Belgians, in which, after German forces have conquered Belgium, the Kaiser tells him: “You’ve lost everything.”
The king replies: “Not my soul.”