Obituary: Milton Cato

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Milton Cato was Chief Minister of St Vincent in the colonial twilight, Premier during Associated Statehood, and Prime Minister at independence when the islands - part of the Windward Islands in the West Indies - became formally St Vincent and the Grenadines.

His had been no easy path. Born on St Vincent in 1915, he won a scholarship to the local grammar school but found no settled employment until, aged 26, he became an articled clerk. In 1945 he enlisted in the 1st Canadian Volunteer Army, serving throughout the North-West Europe campaign. In 1948 the demobilised sergeant trained as a barrister, and was called to the Bar in 1949. Now 35, and soon to be married, he returned home, established chambers, and seemed destined for a calm, comfortable professional career.

But the man was an instinctive politician. He had experienced the wider world, and deeply resented the atmosphere of poverty, neglect, and general drift that seemed to pervade the island. Thus driven, in 1956 he co-founded and became leader of the St Vincent Labour Party. Entering the House of Assembly in 1961, he led the opposition until 1967, when he assumed the office of Chief Minister following election victory; his title changing to Premier in 1969, when St Vincent achieved Associated Statehood - well on the way to independence.

But he faced formidable opposition in an implacable antagonist, his former colleague James Mitchell (the present prime minister, knighted in 1995). Bitterly hostile to Cato and his regime, Mitchell won the 1972 elections, only to lose two years later. Thus it was Cato, not Mitchell, who in 1979 became the first prime minister of the new, independent state of St Vincent and the Grenadines - for just five years. Losing the 1984 elections Cato, now 70, retired to somewhat desultory work in his chambers.

There were strong leaders in the smaller Caribbean islands in the 1960s and 1970s. A visiting US Secretary of State, impressed by their calibre, thought their talents fit for a larger stage. (Unfortunately each wanted that stage to himself, which basically was why the Federation of the West Indies collapsed, and with it all hopes of Caribbean political integration.)

Cato was one such. A committed regionalist - he was a member of the ill- fated Federal Parliament, and a whole-hearted supporter of all and every pan-Carib institution - his prime loyalty was to his state. He was meticulous, and shrewd. Quicker than most to assess the depth of American and Canadian interest as the West Indies ceased to be British, he negotiated skilfully for aid from all three, tailoring his tactics to their sometimes disparate aims.

He was not universally popular; there could be more than a touch of arrogance, of condescension, which infuriated opponents. He lacked the spell-binding oratory of other West Indian politicians; his electoral style was more pedestrian than flamboyant. He may not always have chosen his ministers wisely. But he was never accused by even his most virulent critics of lack of integrity. A rare tribute.

To the end Cato remained courteous, dignified - and modest, declining to seek or accept any honours or other form of self-glorification. The homily at his state funeral was interrupted by applause when the priest concluded, with words however hackneyed: "Milton did not permit his name to be put upon monuments; those wishing to see the monuments to Cato - look around."

For his achievements were notable. The translation of those backward islands of 40 years ago into today's well-founded state vividly reflects Milton Cato's drive and vision. And that, to him, was reward enough.

William Bell

Robert Milton Cato, lawyer and politician: born St Vincent 3 June 1915; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1949; Chief Minister of St Vincent 1967- 69, Premier 1969-72, 1974-79, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines 1979-84; PC 1981; married 1951 Lucy Claxton; died St Vincent 10 February 1997.