OBITUARY : H. Lavity Stoutt

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The Independent Online
On the afternoon of 21 February, H. Lavity Stoutt was sworn in as Chief Minister of the British Virgin Islands for the fifth time since 1967, 38 unbroken years after his first election to the Legislative Council in 1957. He was the longest continuously serving parliamentarian in the Caribbean.

On 20 February, the people of the Islands, a small British dependent territory in the Caribbean, went to the polls in unusual circumstances. Unusual because voters exercised choice not only in the nine electoral districts; but also for the first time in respect of four "at large" or territorial candidates. Not one man, one vote; but one man (or woman), five votes. "The at-large system was a plot," Stoutt announced at the inaugural sitting of the new, enlarged Legislative Council on 2 March, "A plot designed to derail H. Lavity Stoutt. Well it failed. The people have had their say. Their voice has been heard."

Stoutt had not welcomed the London-based acceptance of a Constitutional Review Commission recommendation, without previous debate in the Legislative Council of the British Virgin Islands. He set off last year to protest in Whitehall, but was unsuccessful.

Politics and public life in small island communities have some singular features. For leaders, insularity means inescapable proximity to voters. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone is related to and has attitudes about almost everyone else. Family rifts lie deep; antagonisms and rivalry do not disappear with time; the balance of power relationships is constantly changing. Stoutt understood all this pre-eminently well. He was the archetypal self-made island man, with staying power and tenacity. He was a man for all Caribbean seasons and most domestic situations, and topped the electoral poll for the First District in 11 consecutive general elections.

Stoutt was born in 1929, the eighth child of Isaiah and Iallia Stoutt, of Long Bay, Tortola. In 1943, he became one of the pioneer pupils at the new British Virgin Islands' secondary school, at a period when a maximum of only 25 children annually could move on from primary to secondary education. He left school early, studied house and boat building and then for 15 years made his way in and around the wholesale and retail business.

Stoutt's lack of formal education must at times have been a handicap to him: perhaps because of this, he recognised the need to improve the quality and range of education for all in the British Virgin Islands and to provide government-financed opportunities outside it for bright, talented young people. Hence his support for the British Virgin Islands' Community College and for extensive scholarship and training programmes in the United States, Britain and in the Caribbean; and his determination to see British Virgin islanders at all levels of the Civil Service.

British Virgin islanders prominent today in government, the professions and in business, have cause to be grateful. The great strides in technological development that have been made in the past decade are further evidence of his success. There are better-equipped minds in key places than ever before.

Stoutt was a staunch Methodist, a former Sunday school superintendent and regular lay preacher. In the British Virgin Islands, not only do sport and politics mix, but the church does too. Stoutt kept expatriate non- voting non-belongers at arms length, but knew how to tap the resources of BVI commerce when elections loomed and work permits were in short supply. He was also capable of rousing a crowd in seconds with short-fuse rejection of opposition or criticism, and with the earthy, staged humour of his off-the-cuff political polemics. He knew the popular appeal of home-grown philosophising. Formal speeches found him less assured. He was not always on top of the instant cut and thrust of penetrative parliamentary questioning. Accompanying him abroad, his colleagues and staff could have their endurance, patience and performance tested to the limit, and fact-briefing was often overlooked. When angered, he positively erupted with rage but the volcano subsided just as quickly. There is little doubt that he felt most secure behind his own desk.

The Chief Minister's suite of offices at the Central Administrative Complex in Road Town is sumptuous. Stoutt was the driving force behind the construction of the spacious, cool and well laid-out building's construction, and it is a great achievement. Built on reclaimed land beside the sparkling waters of Road Harbour, it boasts fountains that work, air conditioning, only the second elevator in the BVI and a tasteful staff restaurant. It all looks towards the 21st century. Representatives of neighbouring Caribbean governments have visited, to cast an eye over and to learn from it. With this complex and the Community College in his name, Stoutt has left important visual evidence of two capital projects for which he could properly claim inspirational credit.

In 1982 Stoutt celebrated 25 continuous years of service as an elected Legislative Council member. In the chamber tributes were paid by all when the adjournment motion was put, and Stoutt's response ended, "The people have given me an opportunity to serve, but most of all the people of the First District. They have stayed behind me all the time and we as politicians should make them feel important. I don't have one enemy - I consider one enemy too many. I have friends galore. I am the lover boy of the people of the British Virgin Islands."

Kenneth Bain

H. Lavity Stoutt, politician: born 7 March 1929; Chief Minister, British Virgin Islands 1967-95; married (two sons, three daughters); died 14 May 1995.