The level of crime in Britain is beginning to threaten its image as a peaceful and law-abiding nation, Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke said Saturday.

"At no time since the war have we Conservatives . . . needed a stronger nerve," Clarke told a Conservative Party council meeting in the Yorkshire town of Harrowgate in northern England. "We live in a more violent and less law-abiding society, but let us keep a clear head - crime is not out of control."Clarke's comments follow an increased effort by the government to address the concerns of many people who have been both saddened and outraged by recent cases of violence against both the young and the elderly.

Prime Minister John Major announced recently that he wanted to see the public embarking on a "crusade against crime."

Clarke told the delegates that Britons were "vividly and continually made aware of almost everyday crimes" of violence and rape.

"I know men and women up and down the country feel threatened by crime," Clarke said. "We are beginning to feel shaken in our profound belief in Britain as an essentially peaceful and law-abiding nation."

He said "it is impossible to open a newspaper without reading about yet another gruesome manifestation of criminality."

Although every country in the western world had been "plagued" by a steady rise in reported crime in the past 30 years, American and some European countries had experienced worse crime patterns than Britain, he said.

In an attempt to turn back "the rising tide of crime" the government had now made the issue a top priority, Clarke said.

He announced four "urgent" areas being targeted by the government:

- Under new proposals being drawn up judges would receive more powers to sentence "hooligan children in secure accommodation for as long as it takes to protect the public from their wanton and destructive" behavior.

- The prospect of bail would be reduced for so-called "bail bandits" - those who commit crimes while on bail. Under new laws being prepared for Parliament, Clarke said bail would not be granted to those considered "risky."

- Clarke also announced that the maximum penalty for causing death by "joy riding" would be increased from five to 10 years imprisonment.

- "We do now have much stiffer sentences for crimes of violence, for rape and for sexual offenses than we did 10 years ago. Critics say we have too lengthy prison sentences in this country and more people in prison than in any western European country - I make no apologies for that."