Brighton, England — The unprecedented bomb attack on the British Cabinet, gathered here at the ruling Conservative Party conference, comes at a time of rising and pervasive violence in Britain.
The early Friday morning explosion narrowly missed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but killed 4 people and injured 32 others. The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) claimed responsibility for the attack.
Curiously, considering six people were killed and 91 injured in a bomb attack in the Harrods department store in London only last December, few people in the first few hours after the Brighton bombing automatically pinned the blame on the IRA.
The ''instinctive'' and, as it so happened, erroneous feeling among many people interviewed immediately after the attack, was that it could be associated with any number of contentious issues. Among them picket line violence in the coalfields, the inflammatory rhetoric heard at the party conferences, and Britain's record-high unemployment.
Such a varied reaction to the possible causes for the Brighton bombing, which marks the closest a modern British Prime Minister has come to an assassination attempt, indicates the degree to which various forms of violence threaten Britain today.
Some of that violence is ''imported violence'' such as mainland attacks by the IRA, Libyan hit squads, and the crating up and attempted abduction back to Nigeria of a drugged diplomat. But the index of domestic violence in recent years stands higher on a number of crucial issues.
Soccer violence has become so commonplace that a recent West Ham-Chelsea match in which several policemen and spectators were injured and dozens arrested , was relegated to two paragraphs in the next day's newspapers. Violence by British soccer club supporters both here and abroad has become so endemic that it is known in Europe as ''the British disease.'' In response to the mayhem caused in several continental cities, European authorities have seriously considered banning British soccer hooligans and imposing fines for the damage they cause.
An Indian shopkeeper, who also ran a post office on his premises in southeast London, said for 22 years he had been free of criminal attacks. Within the last year he had been subjected to three holdups.
As a result he had moved to the Bayswater area of London. Even there he was forced to forsake the traditional British shopkeeper's habit of displaying his fruit, vegetables, and flowers outside the shop. Now he keeps those supplies inside because they have been stolen so often.
This is not to suggest that people walk the streets of London in fear for their lives. But it does mean that the British society, traditionally gentle and courteous, is being increasingly brutalized by anti-social forces.
A Home Office Survey, already two years old, shows that fear of crime in Britain's inner cities has reached levels found in major United States cities.
At the Conservative Party conference the question was raised as to why there was more lawlessness today when the elected government prided itself on standing for law and order. Tony Salter, a delegate to the conference, was ''absolutely horrified and appalled by the Brighton bomb attack.'' Violence on the streets, he says, is markedly up. ''I come from the inner London borough of Lewisham where there has been a major breakdown of order with muggings and burglaries.''
Just what can be done to arrest the problem was a matter for debate at Brighton before the shock of the bomb attack. Within the Conservative Party there is an element known as the ''hangers and floggers'' because they support capital punishment and other strenuous measures to eradicate serious crime.
Mr. Salter was reluctant however to see his country, noted for its defense of civil liberties and a police force regarded as among the finest in the world, adopt repressive measures. ''You can only do so much with better policing. You can't live in a police state. If you want to hold on to the freedoms you necessarily have to run the kinds of risks we have run at this conference,'' he says.
One certain repercussion of this assassination attempt will be a strengthening of security for the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. At no other time has the entire Cabinet been put at such collective risk.
Although there have been dramatic IRA bomb blasts throughout Britain, and Mrs. Thatcher and some of her Cabinet colleagues have been threatened with letter bombs, the gravest attack on politicians so far, was the car bomb killing of the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave, in the House of Commons car park in March 1979. But he was an isolated target.
Considerable dissatisfaction has been voiced at the lack of security at the conference, a situation which many delegates and commentators say would not be tolerated in the US. Admittedly, Britain has until now, been relatively free of violence directed against heads of state. Political commentators here suggested Saturday that the IRA bombing would probably put an end to the the traditional British party conference.
Reporters and delegates to the conference never ceased to be amazed that while entrance to the conference itself was closely supervised, they were able to attend small fringe meetings addressed by prominent Cabinet ministers without their credentials ever being displayed or checked.
The IRA says its aim was to wipe out the Cabinet and force the government to withdraw British forces from Northern Ireland.
While the attack did not acheive its primary objective, it came periously close. Thatcher, who was still working on her speech at 2:54 a.m., had her bathroom demolished only two minutes after she had left it. Norman Tebbitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, was hospitalized after falling through four floors in an explosion that tore a gaping hole six stories deep in the hotel.
The attack is seen here as an attempt to reverse a number of conspicuous setbacks for the IRA, especially the recent interception of a gun-running trawler off the Irish coast. The British government has also welcomed several recent developments such as a gradual warming of relations between Dublin and London, and the drop in the number of British troops stationed in Ulster from its peak of 22,000 to about 9,000 today.