The big story in Britain for the last week has been the fate of Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs. It emerged that the parole board had recommended that Biggs, 79 and in a prison hospital with a broken hip, should be released on parole.

But home secretary Jack Straw on Wednesday rejected the recommendation, on the basis that Biggs was “wholly unrepentant” and “the legal system in this country deserves more respect than this.” The decision has been widely criticised, Tory MP Ann Widdecombe for one pointing out that “The courts are being urged to let burglars go free, but one doddery and very frail old man is being kept in prison.”

Biggs, however, has been polarising opinion for years. I recall back in 1981, when Scotland Yard made a botched attempt to retrieve Biggs, listening to two political colleagues commenting on the news. Both were from the ALP, but from opposing factions: the left-winger expressed satisfaction at Biggs’s escape, while the right-winger was disdainful and showed more sympathy with the train driver bashed by the robbers 18 years earlier.

It struck me then how the divergence of views over Biggs was emblematic of the left-right split, in the same way as the Australian debate over Ned Kelly: rebel outlaw hero, or bank robber and murderer?

It’s true but unsatisfying to say he could be both. Although the categories are not mutually exclusive, most of us will naturally stress one side or the other — those on the left sympathising with fighters against authority, those on the right more concerned about preserving social order.

Biggs is being punished for his escape from jail and his lack of repentance — both legitimate social objectives. But he is pretty obviously being punished for other things as well: for the chase around the world, the original failure of extradition in 1974, living the high life in Rio and recording with the Sex Pistols, and the Carribean fiasco of 1981.

In other words he is being punished for having, not once but several times, made the British authorities look foolish. Jack Straw is the instrument of their revenge.

Revenge is never a healthy motive for criminal justice, and in cases like this its consequences can be inhumane in the extreme. But any decision about Biggs will always be an ideological one: do we side with the outlaws or with the forces of order? Does making the authorities look silly go to mitigating Biggs’s crimes, or to exacerbating them?

Labour has shown where it stands, and Straw, who as Tony Blair’s defence secretary led Britain into Iraq, symbolises just how far that party — which once saw the rebels and outlaws as its own forebears — has shifted to the authoritarian right. Biggs may do better from David Cameron’s Tories — if he lives that long.