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Kirkwood was educated at Parkhead Public School and was trained as an engineer. Kirkwood's earliest political involvement was through his trade union, the Associated Society of Engineers, and the Socialist Labour Party, which he left in 1914 to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He was recognised as the Scottish engineers' leader for many years.
He served on the Glasgow Trade Council and was a member of the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC), an organisation chaired by William Gallacher. The CWC grew out of the Clyde engineers' pay dispute of 1915. Until its effective suppression in early 1916 it organized shop floor opposition to the policies of the Ministry of Munitions with regard to Leaving Certificates and Dilution of Labour. Kirkwood was the convenor of shop stewards at Parkhead Forge of William Beardmore and Company, where, in January 1916, he helped to secure a dilution agreement. In March 1916, as a result of a strike related to the implementation of the dilution agreement, Kirkwood was arrested and deported from Glasgow to Edinburgh, an event which greatly increased his profile. He returned to Glasgow in 1917, and was employed as foreman at the Mile-End Shell Factory. In January 1919 Kirkwood was prominently associated with the 40 hours' Strike. Batoned and arrested at a riot in George Square, Glasgow, he was tried for incitement to riot and acquitted. In the 1922 General Election Kirkwood was elected to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament (MP) Dumbarton Burghs. He had previously served for four years on Glasgow Town Council.
Kirkwood was one of the leading figures of the ILP in Parliament as it came into increasing conflict with the Labour Party. In the 1931 general election he was returned as one of five ILP MPs without Labour Party support. However, when the ILP, with the support of James Maxton, decided to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in 1932 this was a step too far for Kirkwood, and he left the ILP and again took the Labour Party whip in 1932. Kirkwood published his autobiography, My Life of Revolt in 1935.
Kirkwood was created Baron Kirkwood, of Bearsden in the County of Dunbarton on 22 December 1951.
He died on 16 April 1955.
- The London Gazette: . 28 December 1951.
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by David Kirkwood
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Dumbarton Burghs
|New constituency||Member of Parliament for Dunbartonshire East
|Peerage of the United Kingdom|