On March 3, the people of the British Virgin Islands commemorated the birthday of the late Honorable H. Lavity Stoutt. A parade was held in his honor and a program conducted in Palm Grove Park where prominent speakers memorialized the life and work of the territory’s first elected chief minister who is affectionately remembered as the “father of the country.” It was a well-deserved tribute for this highly-respected leader who presided over the modernization of the British Virgin Islands as we have come to know it today.
H. Lavity Stoutt was born in 1929 in Tortola and attended the Zion Hill Methodist Church, and later the Senior School which became the Virgin Islands Secondary School, and later the BVI High School. He later studied house and boat building, and began a career in wholesale and retail business. He served his community as superintendent in the West End Society of the Methodist School. He married Hilda Smith of Carrot Bay in 1956 with whom together he had six children. Mr. Stoutt began his political career when he was appointed to the Executive Council as a Minister of Works and Communications following the general elections of 1960 and 1963. In 1966 he participated in the constitutional conference in London which advocated for a full ministerial system to be extended to the territory. He led the newly-formed BVI United Party into the 1967 elections and became the territory’s first Chief Minister. He would give some 38 years of unbroken service to the people of the British Virgin Islands before his death in 1995, having served five times as chief minister He was the longest serving parliamentarian in the Caribbean.
H. Lavity Stoutt’s entry into elected politics marked the acceleration of the development process of the territory. Over the following ten years active community groups successfully advocated for community control of Wickham’s Cay and prime land on the island of Anegada for the use and development of the people. Legislative measures crucial to the future development of the territory were also adopted including ordinances creating the Tourist Board, Immigration and Passport laws, Caribbean Development Bank membership, Land Surveyor laws, a Scholarship Trust Fund the creation of the Development Bank of the Virgin Islands and the Labor Code among other measures.
By 1976, a new constitution was enacted for the territory which increased the number of constituencies to nine, abolished nominated membership, and removed certain responsibilities from the British-appointed governor to the elected chief minister. The post 1976 period saw an unprecedented rate of economic growth in the British Virgin Islands with the emergence of a dual pillar economy of tourism and the international financial sector. This advancement was largely attributed to the vision of H. Lavity Stoutt who was also a staunch advocate of regional cooperation. The territory joined ther Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States during his tenure.
He also recognized the importance of developing formal relations with the U.S. Virgin Islands. Chief Minister Stoutt and US Virgin Islands Governor Alexander A. Farrelly forged a close bond through which a dynamic intergovernmental relationship was formed with the signing of the first formal agreement between the two elected governments creating the Inter Virgin Islands Conference in 1990. This new organization was designed as a mechanism for cooperation between government agencies in the respective territories. Emerging from this agreement were the beginnings of sustained cooperation in law enforcement, natural resources management, inter-island transportation, cultural preservation and a host of other areas of collaboration. This agreement set the stage for future cooperation between the elected governments of the two territories. Chief Minister Stoutt and Governor Farrelly shared the view that the political evolution of the two territories warranted the development of such cooperation between the elected leadership, even as there were those in both territories who felt that such intergovernmental relations should only take place on their behalf between London and Washington. These two leaders stood firm, and won the backing of Washington and London for their initiative.
Chief Minister Stoutt was also a proponent for increased self-government and devolution of power from Britain, and spoke regularly on the need for a true partnership between London and the British dependent territories to correct the political imbalances. Speaking before the British Virgin Islands Legislative Assembly in October 1992, Stoutt questioned the British assertion at the time that the financial services sector would not be sustainable because of the need for possible restrictions. On the contrary, new laws aimed to facilitate transparency and due diligence in the financial sector were enacted enabling the British Virgin Islands to become a model for financial services worldwide.
Chief Minister Stoutt was a staunch advocate of constitutional advancement for the British Virgin Islands. In a 1993 address to the people of the territory, he pointed that in 1967 the budget of the territory was still subsidized by London, and “as a result of our good stewardship” the territory no longer received grant-in-aid from the British by 1979. He emphasized that this was done within the framework of the shift of government financial control to an elected minister. He asserted that there would be “no turning back” to the days when the elected government would have no control over its financial management, and not the “slightest consideration” should be given to any other reduction of the powers of the elected government.
He was clear in his vision that the British Virgin Islands should be granted full internal self-government and ultimately independence. Subsequently, when unilateral changes in 1994 were made from London creating four new ‘at-large’ electoral seats in addition to the nine district seats - without the opportunity for a debate in the local Legislative Council - Stoutt denounced the action as “a plot to derail” him, according to the obituary published in the Independent of London upon his death. As a consummate politician, however, he maneuvered this adversity to his advantage, and his party won all four of the at-large seats in the 1995 election. He later announced that “the people have had their say and their voice had been heard.”
British Virgin Islands Deputy Governor Elton Georges who worked with Chief Minister Stoutt from the 1980s until his death once wrote that H. Lavity Stoutt was a “dynamic, visionary leader who believed in creating ever-expanding opportunities for the people of the territory to be prosperous.” One of these opportunities was the idea of the creation of a institution of tertiary education, even as others were not in favor. As it turned out, the Community College which now bears his name has become an exemplary institution of higher learning recognised world wide. Quite appropriately, its choir performed at the commemoration at Palm Grove Park in honor of the life, dedication and commitment of this Virgin Islands stalwart who Deputy Governor Georges so aptly described as having a “dominant and unshakeable” place in British Virgin Islands history.