Constitutional & Political Development in the Virgin Islands 1950-2000

Such has been written in relatively recent times, about the constitutional and political advancement of the British Virgin Islands, particularly during the twenty five years since the introduction of the Ministerial system of government in 1967. Significantly, some of these writings have been by persons who either were themselves activists for change during the relevant period or who, from time to time, held public office, elected or non-elected, in either the legislative or executive branches of government.

Persons like Theodolph Faulkner of Anegada and Howard Reynold Penn, Isaac Glanville Fonseca and Carlton DeCastro of Road Town, all men of stature, conviction and courage, were the key players during the early period of the quest for a greater say by the indigenous people in the affairs and governance of these British Virgin Islands. They not only lived during a period of important change, but operated at ‘ground zero’ helping to shape the thinking of the time and charting the future advancement of the BVI towards the kind of development and quality of life we enjoy today. Of course, other statesmen like H. Lavity Stoutt and Ivan Dawson were very instrumental in helping to bring about constitutional advancement, and with it, a level of political maturing during the period under review.

Our history relative to constitutional advancement, greater local representation, and increased responsibility for internal affairs goes back to much earlier than 50 years.  The first Legislative Council came into being in 1774 by proclamation of Governor Payne, the then Governor of the Leeward Islands, as a direct result of the protestations and activism of the then inhabitants of the BVI. This first Assembly or House of Representatives, which had its inaugural meeting on 27th January, 1774 consisted of eleven members from the “planters and freeholders”. (Pickering: Early History of the Virgin Islands from Columbus to Emancipation p.75-76). Ironically, it has taken us until the 1994 amendment to the Constitution to progress to a Council of thirteen elected members. Likewise, the method of electing members to the Legislature by the entire country- “At Large”-, which now seemingly is a permanent part of our constitutional framework, is not new to the BVI having been first introduced in 1950 with the restoration of the Legislature. It lasted but one term!

The existence of a Legislative Council as part of our constitutional framework continued until its abolition in 1902. Thereafter, the BVI had no constitutional government for some 48 years, that is, until the beginning of the period under review.

In 1950 the BVI was the ‘backwater’ of the West Indies. The Presidency was then grossly underdeveloped, with a population of about 5,000. There was patently little infrastructure such as roads, electricity or water supply; no airfield or deepwater port. Most roads were really tracks and transportation was mainly by mule or horseback. The electricity supply, such as there was, consisted of a small diesel generator principally to service the hospital, Government House and lower Road Town for a six hour period daily. There were no banks or other financial institutions, no hotels and, simply, no economic base upon which the country could attract foreign investment or capital. The livelihood of the populace depended heavily on agriculture, fishing and cattle raising for export to neighbouring St. Thomas. There was some skilled labour consisting of boatbuilders and tradesmen, but no educated class.

The BVI was then a part of the Leeward Islands Federation and, as such, had no direct connection with Britain being ruled at the time by a Commissioner who was subject to the authority of the Governor of the Leeward Islands stationed in Antigua. Accordingly, its people had not the constitutional framework to develop the knowledge, experience and political institutions necessary to participate effectively in the running of their own affairs.

Political development is married to constitutional advancement, and hence, it is important to give at least an overview of the major or significant constitutional changes which have taken place during the last half century.

The constitution of 1950 has been correctly described as “an instrument minimal in its intent and its effect” (McW Todman - Foreword to “Twenty five years of Ministerial Government”). It was nonetheless a most significant document as it reinstated constitutional government in the BVI, after an absence for some 48 years. It is also significant as providing the beginnings of an evolutionary process that spanned fifty years, leading to further constitutional change and a level of political maturing amongst the peoples of these islands. It provided for four candidates elected territory wide and for nominated and official members who could outvote the elected members. It did not provide for universal adult suffrage (that came in 1953 with the improved constitution); and there was a property and income qualification for candidates vying for election. Both the Legislature and the Executive Council were presided over by a Commissioner.

The constitutional changes of 1950 which resulted in the restoration of the Legislative Council, came about as a result of the activities of the Civic League, a grassroots movement started in 1938 to bring about constitutional government as a basis for the creation of measures to stimulate investment and economic development (Memoirs of HR Penn p.20-21); the prevailing fervent in the rest of the West Indies for constitutional advancement; the activism and vision of one Theodolph Faulkner aided and abetted by Isaac Glanville Fonseca and Carlton DeCastro; and the resulting 1949 march led by these activists for change.

Thereafter, the BVI did not have to wait long for further constitutional change.  In 1954 the Constitution and Elections Ordinance created what is known as the “Membership System”. It provided for division of the country into five electoral districts (thereby dissolving the “At Large” system); a new Legislative Council consisting of eleven members of which the six elected members (two from the Road Town district) could command a majority; abolished the property and income qualifications for holding elected office; and removed the literacy test for voters. (V. Pickering- “The Old and the Unexplored-A fresh look at BVI History”)

With the dissolution of the Federation of the Leeward Islands in July 1956, the BVI become a Colony with an Administrator who by 1960 was directly responsible to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. (Memoirs of HR Penn p.38; V. Pickering “The Old and the Unexplored-A fresh look at BVI History”).

At this time there were no political parties. They first appeared during the 1967 election compaign under the new constitution heralding the introduction of the “Ministerial System”, the result of local representations and the Mary Proudfoot Constitutional Report. The three political parties which contested the 1967 general elections were: the People’s Own Party led by I.G. Fonseca, the BVI Democratic Party led by Dr Q.W. Osborne, and the BVI United Party lead by H.L. Stoutt. As one writer put it: “It is true there was concern about the quick hatching of parties but the mood was nonetheless upbeat. The atmosphere was pregnant with hope. There were actually party conventions and party platforms. One could listen to debates at the Political Institute of Baughers Bay (the Beach Club Terrace) on the merits of the various party positions” (E. Rhymer “Political Development of the BVI Over the Past 25 Years”). As Mr Rhymer goes on to point out, there were really no ideological differences between these first political parties; the differences were really “personality differences”. One may opine that the same situation prevails some 33 years later with the current political parties.

In terms of political development, the period between the advent of the ministerial system in 1967 and the replacement of that constitution in 1976 is worthy of some scrutiny. It is during this period that the BVI experienced a crisis of historical significance. I refer, of course, to the events of 1969 leading to the termination of the agreements for the long lease, reclamation and development of Wickhams Cay and of prime areas of Anegada by a British developer, Bates-Hill. As Vernon Pickering remarked in his article abovementioned, this “scheme was designed to confer privilege on British entrepreneurs and expatriates.” The public demonstrations and protestations of ‘Positive Action’, a pressure group lead by Noel Lloyd and Walter L. DeCastro, precipitated a series of negotiations leading in 1971 to the British Government loaning $5.8 million for the local government to purchase the interest of the developer. Thus these properties were preserved for local development.

It is also during this period that significant legislative measures were put in place which have, in the main, worked well for the Territory and its people. These include the Tourist Board Ordinance, Immigration and Passport Ordinance, Caribbean Development Bank Ordinance, Land Adjudication Ordinance, Registered Land Ordinance, Land Surveyors Ordinance, Banking Ordinance, Scholarship Trust Fund Ordinance, Development Bank of the Virgin Islands Ordinance, Arbitration Ordinance, the Labour Code and the Wickhams Cay Development Authority Ordinance.

The 1976 Constitution increased the number of constituencies to nine, abolished “nominated” membership in the Legislature and removed responsibility for Finance from the Governor to the Chief Minister. It had been preceded by three years with the report of the Deverell/Da Costa Constitutional Commission. Several of their recommendations did not find favour with the Willard Wheatley government of the day. Subject to certain amendments, the most recent being in 2000, the 1976 Constitution remains the primary law of the land. 

During the period 1976 to the present, we have seen unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the BVI. So much so, that the BVI boasts of having one of the highest per capita incomes and standards of living in the Caribbean. We have seen the emergence of offshore financial services as a main pillar of the economy, exceeding tourism as the largest contributor to the public revenues. This has come about against the legislative framework provided by the International Business Companies Act passed by the Legislature in 1984. Other companion legislation in this sector, which have served to gain for the BVI the reputation of being a leading offshore financial services jurisdiction, include the Banks and Trust Companies Act, Company Management Act, the Mutual Funds Act and the Proceeds of Criminal Conduct Act.

In the area of public utilities, we have seen the creation of statutory corporations for the management and development of electricity supply and ports and harbours with the enactment of the BVI Electricity Corporation Act and the BVI Ports Authority Act respectively. Another significant piece of legislation is the Social Security Act 1979, which launched what is now a successful social security scheme in the BVI under the aegis of another statutory corporation.

The BVI Community College Act 1990 which provided for an institution of “higher” or tertiary education, an accomplishment of the drive and determination of the late H. Lavity Stoutt, is certainly a great milestone in our development.

The protection of our natural resources, especially our marine resources, is a vital and never ending responsibility. As a compendium to the National Parks Trust Act enacted in 1961, during this period we saw the passage of Marine Parks and Protected Area Ordinance, the Beach Protection Act and two versions of the Fisheries Act.

In 1977, a new Immigration and Passport Act was passed giving legislative effect to matters such as the grant of belonger and resident status. Development of land based tourism was further facilitated by the enactment of a new Hotels Aid Ordinance providing for the granting of a ten year exemption from import duties and from payment of income tax, as a stimulus for the growth of that sector. A new Business Professions and Trade Licence Act also become law. The law relating to the dissolution of marriages and related matters also underwent much needed change, with the enactment of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1995 making it simpler and less exacting to dissolve a marriage, and providing for no-fault divorces in certain circumstances.

Law and order was beefed up by the enactment of the Drugs Prevention of Misuse Act and later the Criminal Code, a comprehensive codification of the criminal laws of the Territory. Of some significance to the administration of justice is the Recording of Court Proceedings Act 1995 giving authenticity to the transcripts of proceedings of both the Legislative Council and the Courts of Justice.

A new Election Act in 1994 brought into force the legislative changes necessary to give effect to the constitutional provisions of that year providing for a mixed system by the election of four “At Large” members of the Legislature. It also abolished proxy voting at general elections. Also in 1994, the age of majority was lowered to eighteen years, thereby enfranchising a significant portion of the youth who later played a key role in the results of the 1999 general elections.

While the BVI has experienced significant growth and development, some may say our political maturing has been much slower in coming. We continue to have constitutions based on the Westminster model. We have not as yet crafted a constitution more suited to our own circumstances and peculiarities as a microstate with a population of less than twenty thousand, or one that would facilitate greater and broader base representation. The call for the Chief Minister to be elected directly at the polls is a recurring one at each constitutional review. It found some favour with the Deverell/DaCosta Commission. The district system is said to have led to a narrow approach to representation where one tended to be more concerned about and to favour the district one represents. The mixed system we now have was introduced to address this concern and the call for more debate and better representation in the Legislature. The process of implementation of the 1993 Constitutional Commission recommendations continues. These include the introduction into the Constitution of the newly revised categories of persons deemed to belong to the BVI, and consequential changes to the Immigration and Passport Act to facilitate the timelier granting of belonger and resident status. The creation of a fifth ministerial position has already become a reality.

The 1995 and 1999 general elections represent a watershed in development of party politics in the BVI. In 1995 we saw the power of running on a party ticket under the new mixed system, as the Virgin Islands Party under the leadership of H.L. Stoutt was able to motivate its supporters in the districts in which the party candidate was strong, to also strongly support the party’s At- large candidates; even those who were newcomers to the political arena. Significantly, we had the first female elected members of the Legislature both of whom have gone on to become Ministers, ironically by one replacing the other in that position.

In 1999 for the first time no independent candidate was successful at the polls. This is in stark contrast to previous elections where independent candidates were not only elected, but have, after three separate elections, (Willard Wheatley in 1971 and 1976 and C.B. Romney in 1993) ended up as Chief Minister. Moreover, the 1999 election was hotly contested between the long established Virgin Islands Party and a newcomer, the National Democratic Party, with the former being the victor. That election saw a new level of organization, financing and functioning amongst political parties in the BVI. The verdict is far from whether this signaled an increased level of party structuring and political maturity. Hopefully, this will result in far fewer instances of “brokering” by candidates and their henchmen into the wee hours following the announcement of election results, and of candidates “crossing the floor” or switching political allegiance in mid-stream. Perhaps the time may well come when a by-election will be mandated in circumstances where a member is no longer aligned with the party under whose banner he or she was elected.

In conclusion, the various legislators and legislatures have over the last 50 years played a key role in the development of the BVI. The legislation enacted during that period has been substantial, many of which have provided the legal framework and authority necessary for change and advancement in the various sectors and facets of BVI life, including its infrastructure and economic activity. As we look to the 21st century we ought to do so with a sense of national pride and with a renewed commitment to further change, knowing that there is still much left undone and there will be many challenges to face and hard decisions to make. May the peoples of these Virgin Islands, now numbering some 20,000 of diverse backgrounds and heritage, have the necessary vision and good fortune to make the correct decisions and to do so in a manner, which always puts principle and national good above personal or partisan interests.