TUC, Polish Solidarity in September 1980

This is a footnote to history. For some reason I cannot fathom Peter Hitchens started Twitter hares running by asserting that the Trades Union Congress failed to support the Polish union, Solidarity, after its creation in August-September 1980.

I had some interest as I wrote the first book on the Polish Union Solidarity (Spokesman, 1981, still available on Amazon!) based on regular visits to the Polish union in 1980 and 1981 on behalf of the International Metalworkers Federation where I worked after going into exile in September 1979. (Exile in the sense that no-one would offer me a job as a journalist after I finished a turbulent time as a leader of the National Union of Journalists in the late 1970s including the first ever BBC strike which took BBC News off air and the first ever national strike by all newspapers outside London. I applied for scores of jobs in journalism in the months after my NUJ period ended in May 1979 – just when Margaret Thatcher was elected. No-one would even give me an interview.)

I remained an NUJ delegate to the Trades Union Congress in the first week September 1980. The TV news had been full of the strikes in Gdansk and then the negotiations carried out in full public glare between the union, its leader, Lech Walesa, his advisors from the Polish intelligentsia like Tadeusz Mazoiwecki, Bronislaw Geremek, Adam Michnik, and Jacek Kuron, on one side and now long forgotten Polish communist officials on the other side.

Much earlier in the year the TUC had arranged for a delegation to go and see the official communist-controlled Polish trade union organization to discuss trade issues. In those days the TUC was much closer to government than in the last 35 years. The FCO and TUC exchanged officials and there was much suspicion in leftwing circles that the TUC was too close to the British state establishment.

By the time of the TUC Congress in the first week of September 1980, this visit to the official communist union in Poland had become an embarrassment. But the TUC’s cartoon image of being a cart-horse was not an accident. The TUC plodded slowly through debates and decisions.

It had within its ranks some unions under control of influence of the British Communist Party. Everyone knew who the ‘tankies’ (so-called after the Russian habit of sending tanks into Budapest or Prague to crush aspirations for democracy) were and which unions they were powerful in.

Nonetheless the TUC as an organization was firmly in the western anti-Communist ideological camp. The TUC had taken the lead in creating the non-communist International Confederation of Trade Unions. Its leaders strongly supported the European Economic Community which was always bitterly opposed by British communists who were proto-Ukipers as they regarded any sharing of sovereignty or opening of markets inherent in European construction as naked liberal capitalism.

The 1970s was the détente era promoted by Henry Kissinger and sealed by a kiss between Leonid Breshnev and Jimmy Carter.  There was a strong post-1968 anti-Soviet leftism that had considerable presence amongst younger trade union activists many of whom were delegates to the TUC Congress.

So they burst out with cheers and applause when the ‘fraternal delegate’ from the AFL-CIO (the American trade union centre whose international activities were accused of being piloted and paid for by the CIA) at the TUC praised the Gdansk strikers. ‘I think that we are on the eve of a small miracle, namely the right of workers to choose unions of their own, uninhibited by the interference of government or government-controlled trade unions,’ the American trade unionist said.

Normally the AFL-CIO speech was heard with police indifference as a friendly ritual. Now rank and file delegates were applauding the American.  The buzz in the hall and in the corridors and receptions afterwards continued as it became clear that most trade unionists (with the exception of hardline communists) were solidly on the side of their Polish comrades.

A message came from Warsaw that the proposed trip was now reduced to a one-day affair with no chance to visit Gdansk and meet Lech Walesa as the TUC requested. It should not be forgotten that in those days there were no Easyjet or Ryanair daily flights to Polish cities.  I had to fake a tourist visa for my many visits there which certainly broke the rules and was probably illegal. The Polish prosecuting authorities decided I had committed a crime when I was detained in May 1982 when taking money to the underground Solidarity union after it was repressed in December 1981.  Again, I had been deceitful when applying for a visa by saying it was purely for tourist reasons when I was undertaking a political visit to run western trade union money to the clandestine printing operating of the illegal Solidarity. In 1980 getting the TUC carthorse to Poland was not just a matter of booking a flight. Official visas and arrangements had to be negotiated.

Rank and file delegates spoke out in favour of Solidarnosc. Hardline anti-communists tried to score political points of their own. But most British trade unionists realized instinctively that something important and wonderful was happening as the glorious prize of freedom and democracy was being won by workers uniting in a trade union movement. Already the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had decided to target trade unions as the ‘enemy within’ as she later called them. British trade unions made themselves easy targets because of their stupidity in the 1970s.  So they reached out to support workers in another country who were raising the trade union standard even if the Polish movement was nationalist, religious and about identity and core human rights not narrowly about workplace organization and fair wages.

One young delegate from the print union, the National Graphical Association, made a short intervention in favour of Solidarity which was cheered. So was Aidan White of the National Union of Journalists who asked why Lech Walesa was treated as a hero by the same British press that vilified Len Murray, the moderate, cautious TUC General Secretary. By the end of the TUC Congress, its president, Tom Jackson, a pro-American, pro-European anti-communist union leader read out a strong statement in support for Solidarity and announced the visit agreed in April was now cancelled. There were cheers at this statement. David Basnett, the GMB leader, a dull if worthy union official, who was to have led the delegation agreed six months previously but now cancelled, attacked the official Polish union and said : ‘We support the fight for democratic independent trade unions. We want to help them.’

From then on despite moans and mumbling from the TUC’s communists and pro-Soviet apologists the official TUC line along with the ICFTU, the AFL-CIO and the trade unions of the democratic world were strongly in favour of Solidarity. The TUC played an important role at the International Labour Organisation where support for Solidarity was moblised. The Labour Party of Michael Foot, Shirley Williams and Peter Shore rallies  strongly to the side of Solidarity and against the Soviet Union. One should not forget that the Sunday Times had had to pay libel damages to Michael Foot in the 1960s after the paper accused him of being a CIA agent. The left-wing Labour MP, Eric Heffer, heaved his considerable bulk into a too-tight Solidarity T-shirt and the Polish union did more damage to the status of the British communists  and other apologist for Sovietism than all the attacks by their opponents elsewhere in the Labour movement or the press.

Peter Hitchens was a labour – i.e. trade union – reporter in this period. He was a strong critic of communist and left-wing trade union activity.  History has already judged that the infantile leftism of some trade unions in the 1970s hastened the decline in influence and power of British trade unions. While British communists – unlike the French or Italian counterparts – never had much presence in parliamentary politics they were undoubtedly powerful and influential in British trade unions both openly and behind the scenes. British communists spear-headed the criticisms of the European Economic Community which they opposed with the fanatical fervour we now see in Ukip and in the off-shore owned press. To read the arguments of Nigel Farage and the former CPGC leader, John Gollan,about how Europe has destroyed British democracy makes one wonder if the British communism which was extremely nationalistic has morphed into today’s Ukip ideology.

The TUC can and was criticized for staying too close to whatever was the foreign policy line of the government because the TUC up to 1979 saw itself as a power in the realm. This ended under Mrs Thatcher’s government.

In all events, Peter Hitchens has not quite got it right but at an interval of 35 years that is hardly important. His article about me, the TUC and Solidarity in 1980 is below and apart from obiter dicta on myself I agree with many of his points.

At some stage someone might write a full accurate and balanced account of the events Mr Hitchens relates.

I should note that while Peter Hitchens and I have been on the opposite of many if not most political fences over the years he has always been friendly and courteous and good company. I shall never forget how he called me from Houston, Texas a day or two before his brother Christopher, one of my lifelong friends, died to say Christopher had sent his final best wishes. It was an important touching gesture and I shall always be grateful to Peter, at a trying, sad moment finding the time to call me with Christopher’s last greetings.


DM 11 May 2014


Solidarity Forever? The British Left and the Polish Uprising of 1980

By Peter Hitchens published on his Daily Mail blog

A disagreement on ‘Twaddle’ with Denis MacShane prompts me to look up the archives on a forgotten moment in the history of the British Labour movement. This was the reaction of the then-potent Trade Union Congress to the great Gdansk shipyard strike in Poland, which began in the middle of August 1980 and launched the movement called ‘Solidarity’ which eventually overturned Communist rule in Poland. Mr MacShane maintains that the British trade union movement happily welcomed this development. (‘Huge cheers for Sol[idarity] in 1980 TUC Congress’, he writes, merrily). I have a different recollection. I’d be glad of any others.


The TUC, official headquarters of British trade unionism,  might have (or so you would have thought) offered its instant support to the modern Tolpuddle martyrs, who had set themselves against an inflexible and autocratic government, by demanding the freedom to strike and organise. But it wasn’t quite like that.   I rather like Denis MacShane, despite the fact that he is a tediously orthodox post-1968 left-winger, can be utterly exasperating and ended up as a loyal servant of the Blair machine and enthusiastic propagandist for Britain’s absorption into the EU.


It is quite seldom that one encounters somebody who recognises, in such detail,  that the EU is very much a product of the 1968 cultural revolution, and is a fundamentally leftist project. I did not rejoice when his political career ended in personal disgrace, not being an enthusiast for selective justice or for the intervention of the police in politics. The most interesting thing about him is that he was born (the son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother) Denis Matyjaszek, the name under which he was involved in interesting escapades when he was a prominent student journalist at Oxford (I recently read of these while going through old archives of ‘Cherwell’, the Oxford student newspaper, and the ‘Oxford Mail’ for the fateful year of 1968, researching for a contemplated novel that may never be written). Plainly, such an ancestry gave him an individual and different perspective on the Britain of those times.


I don’t have a similar fondness for the TUC, which when I was a labour correspondent seemed unduly open to the influence of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. The trick was worked in this way. The CP was free to operate in the unions, where its really rather small number of well-organised and well-directed members could exercise a great influence by attending meetings assiduously, pursuing co-ordinated policy objective. Thus a union with a large block vote in Labour Party decisions and elections could be largely controlled by a small group of CP activists. They coudl also give union support the many acts of destabilisation of our economy, in the form of futile, self-damaging strikes,  which Moscow no doubt favoured in those days.


They could not do this in the Labour Party itself, where open CP membership was not allowed. But because the TUC had a powerful voice of its own, because its annual conference preceded Labour’s by a few weeks each year and it could therefore be used to rehearse battles and soften up the press and public,  and because senior Labour politicians would invariably attend and usually speak at its conference, it was the point at which the apparently tiny and significant CP could gain social, personal and political access to the topmost parts of the Labour power machine. Declared Communists, such as the Draughtsmen’s Union leader Ken Gill, actually sat on its General Council. Some people wonder why Britain, unlike France and Italy, never had a major working-class Communist movement. The truth is that Britain did, but that movement was half-in, half-out of the Labour Party and the TUC, and reached remarkably high, especially through secret membership


So, when the Gdansk strike became a major issue, the TUC hesitated. Its trade union duties conflicted with its fellow-travelling inclinations. Yes, it was a strike, which it might normally have supported.  But it was also a strike against what many TUC figures regarded as a ‘fraternal’ government. But some others in the TUC were keen to support Lech Walesa’s strike. The most prominent of these was Frank Chapple, an ex-Communist electrician who had (alongside Les Cannon) exposed and defeated ballot-rigging by Communists in his own union in 1961, a scandal now almost totally forgotten. He then became the principal voice of old-fashioned British trade unionism, doggedly devoted to preserving his members’ pay and conditions, suspicious of all leftist politics.  He ended up backing the SDP.


As the TUC hesitated and mumbled through its false teeth, taking a fortnight to offer a grudguing formula of semi-support, Chapple demanded a clear, unequivocal  statement of support for what was, after all, one of the most emotionally inspiring acts of courage in modern history, a genuine and peaceful popular uprising by industrial workers against the state which falsely claimed to be their servant and was in fact their master. From scrappy archives, I think I have established that Mr Chapple particularly wanted support for free trade unions in Poland, a demand which implied that the official unions were not free, as indeed they weren’t.  As far as I can make out from these archives,  he was first asked to withdraw it, and then defeated.


I remember the episode with what seems like clarity. But at a range of almost 34 years, what I recall is of course days of episodes concentrated by my memory into a single drama: The ugly, crowded conference hall, the brownish-grey figures of the then TUC leadership sitting in untelegenic rows as they were made to feel very awkward indeed (nobody in the Labour movement had any presentational skills in those days), Frank Chapple’s brave, heedless East-end pugnaciousness (how amusing to think that he had grown up in Hoxton, now a funky district of Tate Modern hopefuls and poseurs, then a particularly rough classroom in the school of hard knocks) , TUC ‘moderate’ David Basnett’s weary, baffled attempt to compromise (the story of his life –it was always hard to believe he’d been a wartime RAF pilot, but he had. Many of that generation of Labour had good war records) , the ever-present temptations of the outside world, with the English Channel shining just beyond the entrance doors in all its late-summer loveliness, and what had by then become for me the ceaseless desire to abandon this narrow world, cross that Channel and be abroad.


But then there was this drama. I have before me a front page of the Daily Mail for one of those momentous days in early September 1980. ‘POLE-AXED!’ it shouts. Then it quotes Frank Chapple in huge letters ‘The Polish government is treating the TUC with the contempt it feels they deserve’.


The story had by then degenerated into absurdity. The TUC leadership had planned to go on a delegation to meet the official (that is to say, tethered and muzzled and state-controlled) Polish ‘unions’ with which they had shamefully maintained relations. They were  horribly happy to shake hands with these ghastly people, wherever they could find them,  and I have never quite got over being stuck in a tram in Prague in 1978, while we were made to wait for a police-escorted official car containing the (then)  instantly-recognisable figure of Ray Buckton, leader of the train drivers’ union ASLEF, in whose handsome headquarters I used to attend meetings of the Hampstead Labour Party.


Anyway, the Poles, having offered a visit in which there had been no guarantee that the TUC delegation would meet anyone from the Gdansk strike, or indeed any genuine trade unionists. As Mr Chapple said ‘there was never any intention on behalf of the Polish authorities of allowing meetings with genuine representatives of the workers’.


All this  had happened after the TUC had *defeated* an attempt by Frank Chapple to call off the visit. This was the great difficulty faced by the TUC. They really, really wanted to maintain their relationship with the Communist fake trade unions. I and others had the impression this was more important to them than the Gdansk strike.


A few weeks later, Frank Chapple was, in a rare treat for coincidence theorists, chucked off a key committee of the TUC. As a leader in ‘The Times’ (then rather more conservative than it is now)  put it :’ It was not really Mr Frank Chapple’s fault that free trade unionism broke out in Poland last month . It was not even his fault that the official Polish trade union organization subsequently withdrew an invitation to a TUC delegation to visit the country, in circumstances acutely embarrassing to the TUC leadership. ‘


The leader says cheekily that Mr Chapple was ‘tactless enough to be right about Poland’, notes the ‘chagrin’ of the mainstream TUC leadership about Poland and recalls (correctly) that ‘there is a strand of opinion in the [trades union] movement for whom socialism matters more than freedom’.


As they come from the great, deep memory hole of ‘Before the Internet Was Invented’,  these archives are harder to get hold of than they ought to be, and I’m grateful to colleagues in the Associated Newspapers Library for helping me to refresh my memory. When time permits, I’ll dig a bit deeper. But I still think Denis is wrong about those ‘huge cheers’. I’d be prepared to compromise on ‘modest cheers’ from some of those present.

My other memory is quite clear. It is of walking into the bare, glum Hotel Morski in Gdansk two months later, having persuaded my then editor that the Gdansk strike was the biggest industrial story of the age, and meeting Lech Walesa himself, with a young Polish English student acting as my translator. The mere mention of the British TUC provoked an explosion of contempt in Walesa which came so fast and was so emphatic it was hard to get a shorthand note. But he certainly wasn’t responding to ‘huge cheers’. He could tell a hawk from a handsaw.

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