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The Red Baron of Bearsden

DAVID Kirkwood was one of the men who turned Clydeside red, a working class hero feared by an establishment which believed him capable of igniting a Bolshevik revolution in Britain.

In later life, however, the man who once famously warned that "the socialist republic would be established at the point of a bayonet'', was seen by some as having turned his back on his Clydeside roots.

On becoming a peer he chose not to identify himself with the town which for nearly 30 years gave him his power base as a Labour MP, entering the House of Lords as Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden.

His choice of title caused surprise and not a little resentment among his erstwhile constituents in Clydebank. A resident of Roman Road, he explained that it was time to put his association with Bearsden on record, saying he had always taken an interest in his neighbourhood but his parliamentary duties left him little time for active involvement in local affairs.

It seems a sedate end to a turbulent career as a trade union and political activist but everyone knew that Kirkwood had mellowed since the time he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for leading an illegal strike.

But Kirkwood remained true to his conviction that working people deserved a higher standard of living, with secure employment, proper rewards, decent housing and healthcare.

Born on July 8, 1872, Kirkwood worked at William Beardmore's Parkhead Forge where he used to recall that a huge steam hammer, called Samson, used to smash steel into slabs ready for rolling, "made the whole district around Parkhead quiver as in an earthquake.''

It was while chairman of the shop stewards committee at Beardmore's that the name of Davie Kirkwood came to be forever linked with Red Clydeside. Throughout 1915 a series of strikes had crippled the vast engineering works on Clydeside, all of which were by this stage in the Great War involved in munitions production.

One particularly damaging dispute concerned "dilution'', the use of unskilled labourers to do the jobs of skilled men. By December 1915 David Lloyd George, the minister of munitions, had had enough with the disruption on Clydeside. He decided to take it upon himself to stop the unrest. He tried to address a meeting in St Andrew's Hall on Christmas Day but was booed and heckled by a hostile crowd which sang The Red Flag.

Lloyd George wasted no time in forcing dilution on the Clydeside workers. Kirkwood, who had vainly appealed for the minister to be given a fair hearing, knew the rowdy tactics had backfired on the strikers. "I had seen Lloyd George face to face,'' he said. "He was not the kind of man to be put off his stride by a rowdy meeting.

"It was the first time that a cabinet minister had come to the people informally, to talk to them man to man. He had taken a big risk to make peace with us, and we had given him a sword with which to smite us.''

But by March 1916 the workers at Beardmore's were out on strike again, claiming the factory owners had broken the agreement which government commissioners had brokered between management and unions. The deal guaranteed the position of all shop stewards but Kirkwood found himself forbidden to leave his bench without permission during working hours. Workers at other factories quickly downed tools also.

Four armed detectives turned up at Kirkwood's home at 3am to arrest him. He and the other strike leaders were deported to Edinburgh. He was later allowed to return to Glasgow but rearrested and confined in Edinburgh Castle. He was eventually released on the personal instructions of Winston Churchill. There was no more unrest at any of the Clydeside factories for the duration of the war. Indeed Kirkwood was to take pride in the productivity records achieved by the Beardmore's workforce.

He was able to say: "What a team! There never was anything like it in Great Britain. We organised a bonus system in which everyone benefited by high production. Records were made only to be broken.

"In six weeks we held the record for output in Great Britain, and we never lost our premier position.''

BUT the spectre of labour unrest was to cast another shadow over Clydeside within weeks of the war ending. The result was the 40-hour strike, the Black Friday riot in George Square and troops and tanks sent into Glasgow to prevent a Bolshevist revolution.

The unions were worried that demobbed soldiers would never find civilian jobs. Their answer was to call for the working week to be cut by eight hours to 40, thus giving everyone a slice of the jobs cake.

On Friday, January 31, 1919, thousands of strikers packed into George Square to hear if the government and unions had reached an agreement. The police, unnerved by the size of the crowd, panicked and mounted a baton charge to clear the tramlines.

Davie Kirkwood, who was in the City Chambers with union leaders Manny Shinwell and William Gallacher, names also associated with Red Clydeside, ran out into the Square to find out what all the commotion was about. A policeman cracked him on the head with a baton, knocking him unconscious.

The government, alarmed by pictures showing the Red Flag unfurled in George Square rushed 12,000 soldiers and six tanks to Glasgow to keep the peace. They need not have worried. There were no more demonstrations and the strikers were soon drifting back to the factories. The 40-hour week was not achieved.

Kirkwood first tried to enter parliament at the general election in December 1918, the first in which women were allowed to vote. He was the Labour candidate for Dumbarton Burghs, consisting of Dumbarton and Clydebank. He lost by just over a thousand votes to the Liberal candidate. But Kirkwood did not have to wait long for electoral success to come his way. He was one of only 29 Labour MPs elected in Scotland at the 1922 election. He remained in Parliament until 1951, by which time boundary changes had split the constituency into West and East Dunbartonshire, Kirkwood being MP for the latter.

Kirkwood proved a popular and able MP, holding his seat even in his party's disastrous 1931 showing when only seven Labour MPs were returned in Scotland. Clydebank people had so taken Kirkwood to their hearts that the children commemorated him in a street rhyme:

"Vote, vote, vote for Davie Kirkwood,

Vote, vote, vote for all his men,

Then we'll buy a tommy gun,

And we'll make the Tories run,

"And you'll never see a Tory again."

His impatience to see action taken over the social problems of the times led him into conflicts with the Speaker of the House on several occasions, but even Kirkwood's left wing credentials were too weak for some. He was publicly slated by a leading Communist for not being radical enough. Kirkwood himself had no time for Communists, saying they did not represent the working class.

He supported the temperance cause, backing a council decision not to allow pubs in Clydebank's new housing schemes. He said in 1929: "Prohibition is necessary if we are to have clean government, both local and national."

PERHAPS David Kirkwood's greatest moment as MP for Clydebank came with the launch of the Clyde's most elegant ship, the Queen Mary, in 1934.

A year after John Brown's began work on the order, called 534, their customer, Cunard, ran out of money. Thousands of men were laid off with little hope of finding other work in a time of depression.

Kirkwood declared: "As long as 534 lies like a skeleton in my constituency, so long will the depression last in this country. To me it seems to shout "Failure, Failure," to the whole of Britain.

He was determined that work on the great liner should resume and badgered government ministers mercilessly. He even took King George V to Clydebank to show him how much the townspeople were suffering as a result of losing their shipbuilding jobs.

In 1934 the government finally agreed to give John Brown's a special loan and work resumed on the Queen Mary.

When the ship was launched the king sent for Kirkwood and told him: "You should be a proud man in the knowledge that you not only helped to obtain employment at a very critical moment for many men but in seeing today what that work has accomplished."

In 1936 David Kirkwood came to live in Bearsden. Five years later he mourned with his constituents as Hitler's Luftwaffe flattened Clydebank.

He was told at a public meeting that bombed out families were sleeping in garages in Milngavie while commodious villas lay empty nearby. When the MP promised that any such homes would be requisitioned a heckler yelled: "What about your house?'' Kirkwood was able to reply that he had already taken in three families.

In April 1951 the Herald reported that Kirkwood had received the Freedom of Clydebank. At the ceremony he said he had always been proud to be an engineer, but to be an engineer in Clydebank was "something special."

Hector McNeil, Secretary of State for Scotland, officiated at another presentation in September of that year. The Herald said: "The main presentation was a copy of the constitution of the David Kirkwood Scholarship Fund, intended to commemorate his work, which will provide for two scholarships yearly for study at the various summer schools run by the Workers Educational Association and the National Council of Labour Colleges."

By then Kirkwood had announced his decision to retire at the next election and the Herald was predicting that he would be elevated to the Lords. He did not live long to enjoy his baronial status dying on April 15, 1955 at the age of 82.

A Herald reporter covering the funeral interviewed Kirkwood's daughter about his career and commitment to Bearsden.

"What with the flowers, the long line of waiting cars and the obvious emotion of the gathering of sympathetic onlookers, it was a most impressive occasion," said the Herald. "The esteem in which this most colourful and well known resident was held was shown in the many beautiful floral tributes."

Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden was buried at Tollcross Cemetery.

His contribution to the Clyde shipbuilding industry was marked by the presence at the funeral of Sir James McNeil, managing director of John Brown's. A minute's silence was observed by the workers at the yard itself.

 
 
 

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