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‘Ah fraid Karl’
“Ah fraid Karl” was a term that was immortalised by the calypsonian and scholar Dr Hollis Liverpool (aka Chalkdust), in a calypso of that name in 1972. That calypso was a clever satire about the activities of various government officials that were highlighted against the backdrop of Chalkdust’s fear of Karl, as attorney general, because of the amendments that the Government had piloted in 1971 to the Sedition Ordinance of 1920.
The Sedition (Amendment) Act (No. 36 of 1971) made several amendments to the 1920 ordinance as the Williams administration moved to control “dissident groups” in the aftermath of the 1970 disturbances and the 1971 election campaign.
As attorney general, Karl Hudson-Phillips was the minister responsible for this amendment and became the face associated with it. In August 1970 Hudson-Phillips, as attorney general, had also been the minister who had introduced the infamous Public Order Bill which was later withdrawn by the Government. He offered his resignation to Prime Minister Williams, who refused it.
Elements of the original Public Order Bill of 1970 were later woven into various pieces of legislation such as the Firearms Act 1970, the Sedition (Amendment) Act 1971, and the Summary Offences Act 1972. Effectively, Hudson-Phillips was able to accomplish his goals of introducing stern social order legislation—which still have effect today. Many people developed a profile of him in their minds as a stern disciplinarian at a time when there was a real threat of social disorder.
The reality is that his stern approach was not confined only to demonstrators and dissidents. He also took aim at colleagues in the Cabinet. In a letter cited in my biography of Kamaluddin Mohammed entitled Kamal, published in 1996, this is what Hudson-Phillips wrote to Williams on April 20, 1970 (the day before the declaration of a State of Emergency):
“Honourable Prime Minister, I wish to confirm our conversation over the weekend and in particular your agreement with my decision to proceed against certain persons. The above, of course, raises in a very real manner the position of one of your ministers in particular who has repeatedly flouted the law against the gaming of cocks.
“I wish to remind that justice must always appear to be even-handed. It would therefore be impossible for me to refrain from taking action which may be necessary should the Honourable Minister continue publicly by word and deed to flout the law. I thought I should make my views in this respect clear because obviously any process against one of my fellow ministers must have serious political consequences. I therefore trust that you will understand fully my point of view in this rather delicate matter.
Karl T Hudson-Phillips,
Attorney General and Minister of
The language of the letter was quintessential Karl and revealed the kind of political courage that would make people fear him. To challenge Williams over the conduct of one of his closest political and personal confidants, in the person of John O’Halloran, was no easy task. On May 10, 1970 in an address to the nation, Williams announced the resignation of three ministers, namely O’Halloran, Gerard Montano and WJ Alexander, as part of a Cabinet reshuffle.
Little did anyone know about the discussion and the letter between Hudson-Phillips and Williams in relation to O’Halloran. However, these were reasons even for Williams to “fraid Karl” himself. The close relationship between Williams and O’Halloran would only be confirmed over a decade later, when it was revealed that Williams had named O’Halloran as the executor of his will.
In hindsight, one can now appreciate why it was better for O’Halloran to resign from the Cabinet rather than face the political consequences of Hudson-Phillips’ proposed action at the most critical juncture of the Black Power uprising. It would also explain why Williams would have preferred to refuse Karl’s offer of resignation over the withdrawal of the Public Order Bill later that year. It was indeed a moment to “fraid Karl” in 1970, far less for Chalkdust in his 1972 calypso about the Sedition (Amendment) Act.
Dr Hamid Ghany is deputy managing director and managing editor of Guardian Media Ltd.
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