LONDON -- For the past 70 years a British firefighter who rescued a child from a burning building might get a spot on the queen's honors list, and an award grandiosely called a British Empire Medal (BEM).
A soldier of the ranks who saved his comrades by charging an enemy machine-gun nest might be nominated for the Military Medal.
But neither hero could aspire to much higher. These were the awards reserved for the working classes and enlisted ranks.
Grander honors, such as the MBE (Member of the British Empire) and higher, went to the middle-class teacher who distinguished himself or to the bureaucrat or diplomat who put in his time.
And only officers, many less courageous than the men they led, could receive the Military Cross, though the highest medal, the Victoria Cross, was open to both officers and enlisted ranks.
For the most part, heroism and service and the rewards for them, like so much else in Britain, were determined by class.
But yesterday everything started to change as Prime Minister John Major announced the first step since 1922 to bring a measure of fairness to the way the United Kingdom regards its heroes and exceptional servants.
In a parliamentary statement, Mr. Major proposed to do away with the separation of the nation's achievers by their economic class. He said he would abolish the BEM.
From now on, the MBE will be awarded to industrious hospital porters, efficient secretaries or achieving low-rank policemen as well as mid-level journalists or accountants or others in nominally middle-class trades.
That means the queen herself, or at least a member of the royal family, will be handing out the awards at the various ceremonies through the year held for this purpose at Buckingham Palace.
In the past the BEM winners got their medals from local politicians or from government ministers sent out to do that job.
Though Mr. Major assured past recipients of BEMs that the "change will not affect existing holders of the BEM, who will of course retain their medals," it is uncertain how many among the hundreds of people throughout the country who hold these lesser medals will see them devalued by their abolition.
Mr. Major proposed other changes to make the honors system more meritocratic. Civil servants at the more elevated ranks, the so-called "mandarins of Whitehall," can no longer expect to have knighthoods awaiting them if their career is not a distinguished one.
"Automatic honors will end," the prime minister said. They will not "follow simply as a result of doing a particular job." They will "be awarded on merit, or exceptional achievement or exceptional service, over and above what normally might be expected."
Such titles as Knights Batchelor or Companion of the Bath were handed out automatically to those of the rank of deputy and permanent secretary and to diplomats of lengthy service.
The new system is expected to begin with the queen's birthday honors list in June.