Marmite, Ryvita and a stash of cash

The Solidarity union was born 25 years ago this summer, rocking the communist world. Denis MacShane

My criminal record is pretty thin. Speeding and parking fines, student demonstrations and picket-line forays for the National Union of Journalists never seemed to persuade magistrates that I was worth anything but a ticking-off. And yet, somewhere in a file in Warsaw, I am listed as an enemy of the state. I think I may be the only British MP, indeed the only Privy Councillor, who has had to stand before a workers' court in a communist country and await a verdict.

It happened in 1982 when I was picked up by the Polish police after smuggling $10,000 of European trade union funds to the underground Solidarity union. I vaguely remember tearing up and swallowing the address of the contact in Warsaw to whom I had given the cash, but my main memory is of being taken from a prison cell after a few days to meet the diplomat from the British embassy paying me a consular visit. He assured me my case was being reported on the BBC, that a good lawyer had been hired, and that if I looked polite and sorrowful, the court would not impose a jail sentence. To cheer me up he gave me the standard Foreign Office survival kit for politically incorrect Brits banged up in communist prisons. It was a small Harrods carrier bag containing three apples, a tiny jar of Marmite, a packet of Ryvita and two copies of Country Life.

How had I got in this pickle? When Solidarity began in 1980 I was working for an international trade union body based in Geneva, and I soon found myself visiting Poland frequently as one of the union's links with the west. As my Polish contacts widened I wrote a book about the union, and when martial law was declared in December 1981 I volunteered to smuggle money to support Solidarity's underground printing operations - they knew me and trusted me. On this particular occasion, after delivering my wad of $100 and $50 notes, I took the risk of joining a street demonstration and got caught in the police round-up. My court appearance, when it came, was a bit like being hauled in front of the parliamentary whips for failing to vote to order. A pained-looking legal type in a grey suit sat flanked by two burly men in blue overalls - this was a workers' court, after all - who told me I was an anti-state hooligan and should leave Poland forthwith. I never found out whether the police knew about my money-smuggling activities.

I wasn't able to return until 1989, the year communism was tipped into history's dustbin as the regime finally accepted free elections - a more important signal of the death of 20th-century Sovietism than the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later. But if that was the end, then the beginning of the end had been the summer of 1980, exactly 25 years ago now, when the great wave of Polish strikes broke out and Solidarnosc came into being. It was a landmark in history that will rightly be widely celebrated in the coming weeks. It was a hot summer, and the unrest began in July after the government announced that the price of meat would rise to market levels.

Last month I was back again in Warsaw, with my 17-year-old daughter, and we marvelled at the shopper's paradise of contemporary Poland. We ate mounds of pierogi, delicious stuffed dumplings, and enjoyed chlodnik, the subtle chilled cream soup of beetroot that makes gazpacho taste like blender slush. At an evening barbecue Adam Rotfeld, the Polish minister for foreign affairs, a survivor of the Holocaust and of deportation to Siberia, turned up with wonderful tales about the behaviour of his fellow foreign ministers on the current European Union circuit.

In 1980, today's Poland would have seemed paradise. Back then everyone carried string bags at all times, so that if they saw a queue they could join it and buy whatever was on offer. Butchers' shops were grim, dirty places selling soggy pink sausage and bits of pork that were mainly bone, gristle and fat. In that world, to push up the price of meat was to take a risk.

In 1970 there had been big protests in Gdansk, centre of one of the few earners of hard currency for Poland - its shipbuilding industry. On that occasion the government hit back hard, firing on workers - events captured in Andrzej Wajda's film Man of Iron - as it did again after similar protests in Radom in 1976. In 1980, however, circumstances had changed and Poland, like the rest of the Soviet imperium, was bathed in the warm afterglow of Henry's Kissinger's detente and Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik.

Jimmy Carter had planted a full-lipped kiss on Leonid Brezhnev's cruel, fleshy mouth and David Owen, a Labour foreign secretary, had bestowed a knighthood on the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. The TUC was sending ever-bigger delegations to express fraternity with the KGB-controlled unions of Russia and Poland. Later, old communists and new conservatives invented a theory that Solidarnosc had been invented by the CIA and sustained by anti-communist fervour in Reagan's Washington. Yet Ronald Reagan had not been elected when the union was formed, and Margaret Thatcher would tighten visa rules to keep Polish asylum-seekers out of Britain after the union was outlawed. It is a historical nonsense to attribute this great achievement to anything other than the determination of the Poles themselves.

I had visited Prague to show support for Charter 77 activists, but the Czech secret police allowed visits by western sympathisers because they found it relatively easy to control and repress Vaclav Havel's movement of writers and journalists. Henry Porter's new novel, Brandenburg, captures well the all-pervading presence of the Stasi in East Germany. Even as Sovietism grew flabby, the torture, cruelties and victimisations that had been hallmarks of communism since Lenin were still the norm in much of Europe - this only a quarter of a century ago. But Poland was different.

A big mistake the Warsaw regime had made was to organise the last great anti-Jewish expulsion in Europe, in 1968. Like students everywhere else that year, the bright young things in the sprawling buildings of Warsaw University between the Nowy Swiat and the Old Town had organised protests and teach-ins. The government response was the old, stupid one - to blame the Jews and the cosmopolitans - and so about 20,000 activists, mostly young Jewish intellectuals, were "encouraged" into exile. They soon arrived at Bush House, at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, at Harvard and Yale, in Stockholm and Rome, and together they formed a network of anti-Stalinist leftists.

They kept in permanent touch with their friends who had stayed in Poland and who in 1976 formed KOR, the Workers' Defence Committee. KOR was based on a premise that seemed so simple, but which was ingenious. The main claim for Leninism and Stalinism was that they liberated the working class from the oppression of capitalism, yet under communist rule the poor and the proletariat were suffering more than anyone else. Trade union and party bosses enjoyed comfortable lives, with access to private party supermarkets, travel in the west and university places for their children, but for workers there was poor food, filthy working conditions and shoddy housing. What KOR did was to ask politely but firmly for the legal rights of workers to be upheld. It drove the authorities mad, but it was hard to suppress, because it did not seek direct confrontation with the communist state.

So when the strikes broke out in July 1980 there was a network inside and outside the country that was ideologically prepared to provide advice and co-ordination for the strikers, and to tell detentistes such as Kissinger and most European leaders that snuggling up to the tired communist dictators was passe.

The strike movement began making history when workers in the Gdansk shipyards, the steel factories around Krakow and the coal mines of Silesia decided to stop work but remain inside their workplaces. Because they were not on the streets they could not be tear-gassed or driven apart by the police, and so, just by staying put, en masse, the working class of Poland was able to make it clear that it did not want communism.

On 14 August, Lech Walesa, the plebeian tribune, jumped over the security fence into the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, from which he had previously been dismissed for taking up workers' complaints. This was a fellow-worker, someone whom those inside knew, someone who was not a western-inspired intellectual. He spoke a clumsy, raw Polish but he knew what he wanted and the workers needed: a fully independent trade union that they, not the party, controlled.

On 31 August 1980, that demand became reality when the Polish government conceded that workers had the right to create their own trade union. The next 16 months were a roller coaster of political change. After all of history's partitions, defeats, occupations, humiliations and national losses (as a percentage of population, more Poles were killed in the Second World War than Russians), Polish nationalism and Romanticism, deep Polish Catholicism and a sense of Polish rebirth helped the Poles rise like lions from a long slumber. They were many, the communists few.

The formal declaration of martial law in 1981 only further exposed the inability of European communism to coexist with modern society. The Soviet Union responded to Solidarity by allowing Mikhail Gorbachev to take over. China responded by unleashing a fusion of Marx and Mammon that may yet defeat democracy and human rights. In a hot Polish summer 25 years ago a strike made history. Europe would never be the same again.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham. In 2002 he represented Britain as minister for Europe at the European Council that admitted Poland as a member of the EU