Return Of Britain's 'Great Train Robber' Sparks National Debate

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - After 35 years on the run, Britain's "Great Train Robber," Ronnie Biggs, is back in police custody, having voluntarily returned to the country he hopes will provide the health care he needs after suffering three strokes.

Biggs landed at a Royal Air Force base north of London Monday morning, in an executive jet chartered by Britain's largest-selling tabloid daily, the Sun. He was immediately arrested, a spokesman for Scotland Yard said, for being "unlawfully at large." He was wearing a Sun t-shirt and a cowboy hat.

While the Sun celebrated his return as a coup, devoting its front page and the next six to the story, other commentators have slammed the paper for its attempt to turn a wanted fugitive into a celebrity.

Biggs was one of the masterminds of an audacious 1963 robbery of a night mail train traveling between Scotland and London, which netted the gang $3.7 million, worth the equivalent of some $72 million today. In the process a train driver was attacked. Because of his injuries, he was unable to work again and died six years later.

Caught, convicted and jailed for 30 years, Biggs escaped from a London prison 15 months later by scaling a wall and jumping through a hole in the roof of a passing truck.

Using a false passport, he escaped to Brazil via Australia and Panama, with the British police not far behind. In Brazil, however, Biggs fathered a child, thus making himself ineligible for extradition under Brazilian law.

Last week the Sun reported that Biggs had faxed Scotland Yard, asking Britain to provide him with a passport to allow him to return to the country, and saying he was prepared to be arrested on landing.

The paper said Biggs wanted to return to rainy Britain from a life of "sun, sea, sand and sex" in Rio because he longed to enjoy a pint of beer and a plate of curry at an English pub.

Mixed views

The subject has diverted a country weary of foot and mouth, an unseasonably chilly spring and speculation about when Prime Minister Tony Blair will call an election. Over the weekend, media have devoted considerable airtime and column inches to the story, as Britons decide whether the frail old man deserves a break, or should pay for his crimes.

In characteristic style, the Sun said its team of reporters and photographers who went to Brazil to bring Biggs back were "the best in the business."

"Their names will forever shine. This is the stuff of which legends are made - for they are the boys who brought back Ronnie Biggs."

Not so enthusiastic were rival tabloids. The left-leaning Mirror said the Sun could not have treated the convicted criminal more graciously if he were the Prince of Wales.

It noted that the UK's press complaints body's code of conduct prohibits newspapers from paying criminals.

The Mirror said Biggs should be "banged up in jail with no privileges" and the Sun should get "the equivalent treatment" from the Press Complaints Commission.

"What they are doing with this criminal is no joke and they should not be allowed to get away with pretending it is."

Another tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported that taxpayers will have to pay "the not inconsiderable bill for his future health care."

It noted that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had not delayed in ensuring Biggs received an emergency passport to allow his speedy return, thus helping the Sun's "showbiz style stunt."

The Guardian calculated that, with the cost of the plane and "expenses" paid to Bigg's son and others who facilitated the deal, the Sun had paid almost $144,000 pounds "for the right to say it was the paper that brought back Britain's most notorious fugitive."

The question has cut across party political lines, with the opposition Conservative Party finding itself, unusually, on the same side of an issue as the Labor-supporting Mirror.

The Conservative spokesperson on home affairs, Ann Widdecombe, said Biggs should be returned to prison and spend the rest of his life there.

A columnist in the Daily Telegraph had little sympathy for the "swaggering, looting, womanizing" Biggs, and wondered why the British public tended to have a soft spot for such characters.

"For years now, Biggs has been milking his dubious celebrity for every last drop, hosting barbecues for tourists who pay $100 a head to meet one of Britain's greatest gangsters."

Not everyone sees Biggs in that light, however. In a poll on Sky News, as of Monday midday, two times more respondents said they viewed Biggs as a "notorious villain" (66.7 percent), than as a "loveable rogue" (33.2 percent).

Home Office Minister Charles Clarke said any petition for clemency on Biggs' behalf would almost certainly fail.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow