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13 September 2007

Exclusive picture: Ronnie Biggs as he faces death in prison


He was once one of Britain's most notorious criminals. But this is how Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, 78, looks today inside Norwich Prison.

His lawyers hope that it will help persuade the Ministry of Justice that he should be released early on humanitarian or health grounds. But here, one writer argues that Biggs should be shown no mercy...

Sometimes, for the sake of the greater good, it is necessary to be harsh. So while I wish illness and wretchedness on no one - and certainly think it unlikely that he would ever again commit a crime - I passionately believe it would be wrong to release Ronnie Biggs early, however near death he may be.

Ronnie Biggs in prison
Ronnie Biggs last week in prison - he wants to be allowed to leave because of ill health

The British have a sentimental streak about certain of their villains. Some of the very people who shout loudest about the lawlessness of present-day gang culture wax nostalgic about how good the Krays were to their mother and conveniently forget that they were ruthless murderers.

Ronnie Biggs - like the other Great Train Robbers - has benefited from his status as a celebrity criminal and is popularly perceived as a rather attractive rascal.

After all, say the unthinking, wasn't that robbery rather a lark? And after all, wasn't it a victimless crime? Don't people do much worse things and get away with much lighter sentences? How can we be so cruel to a sick old man who just wants to end his days with his family?

Quite apart from the fact that there is no such thing as a victimless crime, let's just remind ourselves that Ronnie Biggs is a man who spent the first part of his life committing crimes and the rest of it revelling in his undeserved fame.

A young Ronnie Biggs
Ronnie Biggs as a young man, in the days of the Great Train Robbery

You might think that knowing he and his associates had ruined the life of Jack Mills, the train driver whom they hit over the head with an iron bar so hard that he could never work again, would have made Biggs ashamed.

But no. Right and wrong never meant much to Ronnie: money, the good life and fame meant everything. And for far too long, he was able to make the most of both.

For those of us who believed - and still do believe - that Biggs was no better than a common thief, it was infinitely depressing how popular culture embraced him as he mocked justice in exile in Rio.

We despaired as British tourists bought mugs and T-shirts with his face on them when, as the father of a Brazilian-born son, Biggs was not able to be extradited.

We groaned when the Sex Pistols only enhanced their bad-boy image when they invited Biggs to sing with them.

Oh, I know it may seem that his crimes took place so long ago that it scarcely matters any more.

But by celebrating his notoriety, rather than condemning him, those who lionised Biggs inverted the moral order, setting us off on the slippery slope that has brought us to our present chilling condition, where violence is celebrated and criminality is "cool".

I'm thinking here, in particular, of the spate of British gangland films, such as Lock, Stock... and Snatch, which actively revel in the violence of thugs like Biggs and his gang.

But of course it is part and parcel of the same trend that has seen rappers glory in US gangland "culture" or Hollywood directors such as Quentin Tarantino churn out thrillers in which the anti-hero is a murderous underworld figure whom we are invited to admire for his natty suits, contempt for authority and penchant for casual brutality.

Look, too, at the popularity of ultra-violent computer games with names such as Vice City and you will see how players are encouraged to live out fantasies of being an anarchic criminal and rewarded for acts of despicable savagery.

And yet we wonder why our streets are becoming more lawless, that gun crime is spiralling out of control, and that an 11-year-old can be shot in a Liverpool pub car park by a teenage killer.

All this may seem a long way from shabby, shameless Ronnie Biggs, who came back to Britain because he was sick and wanted free medical attention. Yet he was a bad man and deserved to be treated as such, not feted as a minor celebrity.

Biggs certainly admired himself and was so confident of his popularity that he expected public opinion to rally to him and help him get out of jail by playing the compassion card.

All he wanted, Biggs explained in his cheeky chappie persona, was, "as an Englishman", to be able to go into a pub in Margate (a hang-out for old criminals) and have a pint. You can hear people saying: "Aaaaah!"

Amazingly, the oh-so liberal Home Office has resisted the temptation to indulge him, and although he has had heart attacks and strokes, Biggs is still in jail. In total, he has so far served just over seven years of a 28-year sentence.

Sensibly enough, Biggs has been moved from the maximum-security Belmarsh prison to an easier regime in Norwich, but his son Mike is still aggrieved.

"My father can hardly walk, will never speak again, cannot eat, drink, read or write, but he's still deemed a threat to society," he said, echoing those who think it therefore ridiculous that the old man remains in jail.

But the truth is that Biggs's threat to society comes not from any risk that he might reoffend, but from the widespread perception that he got away with his crimes. In that sense, he is still a dangerous influence.
If our Justice Secretary is tempted to let him go, he might usefully look at the fan mail Biggs is getting on the social networking site MySpace, which he signed up to when he was given a computer and was presumably more coherent.

There's a cheerful photograph of him in a T-shirt that says "Prisoner of Rio", his occupation is given as "retired train robber/globetrotter" and explains that he has signed up to the website for the purposes of "dating".

"I travelled quite a bit when I was younger," he wrote. "So it's nice to be able to keep in touch with all the great people I met.

"It gets pretty lonely where I am now, so to be able to talk to people all over the world is something to treasure. Please feel free to contact me and keep me updated with what's goings on, music, film, etc."

Impressionable half-wits queued up to be friends with him. "Your a ledgend Ronnie, Hope your keeping well"(sic), was a typical message.

"Hows things with you? Hope those bastards are treating you well squire", was another, reflecting the now fashionable view that prisoners are oppressed and warders are oppressors.

And demonstrating just how dangerous Biggs is as a role model was the contribution: "Hope all is better for you since your move. Here's to a man who had the bottle to do what most only dream of. Cheers."

The sad truth is that there are all too many people who would commit crimes if they thought there would be no punishment, which is why it is important that the public knows about this miserable end to Biggs's contemptible career.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, who spent years trying to bring Biggs to justice, was against his early release for that very reason. Slipper of the Yard was a great policeman of the old school, dedicated, fair and decent.

"I am older than Ronnie and it would give me great satisfaction to outlive him to show that my way of life was the best in the end," he said after his cancer was diagnosed in 2001.

Well, Slipper did not outlive Biggs, but when he died in 2005 he at least knew his quarry was still under lock and key. Mike Biggs said at the time that "even though my father and Mr Slipper were on different sides of the fence, there was a very high and mutual respect between them". I rather doubt that.

Slipper believed villains were villains who must be given their just deserts, something popular culture has lost sight of.

Biggs's just deserts need him to be kept in prison as a warning to those who see crime as a career option - and a glamorous one at that.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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