London (CNN)They are two patriotic songs that, for decades, have been a staple of the final extravaganza in the "Proms" series of classical music concerts that bookends the British summer.
Britain's latest culture war is about a classical concert. Critics say racial justice is a bigger issue
But this year, "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule, Britannia!" are at the center of a toxic culture-war debate that many say is distracting from the country's real problems with systemic racism.
Fury erupted when a newspaper claimed that the BBC, which organizes and broadcasts the event, was planning to replace the anthems out of concerns that the songs' lyrics -- which laud the country's past glories -- might be out of place in an age of historical reckoning.
The BBC's subsequent announcement that the "Last Night of the Proms" event on September 12 would feature orchestral versions of the songs, without the contentious lyrics, has done little to dampen the furor from critics who claim that too much ground is being ceded to "politically correct" agitators. Government ministers, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, waded in to express outrage.
"I think it's time that we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture, and we stop this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness," said Johnson, who has repeatedly been accused of stoking divisions that emerged from Brexit.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted that he had raised the "concerns of many" with the BBC, which is funded by a compulsory license fee, while Business Secretary Alok Sharma told Sky News he "would like to see the lyrics sung."
But anti-racism campaigners, academics and political commentators said the condemnation of the BBC -- already under fire from the Conservative Party over its alleged liberal bias -- from government MPs and right-wing newspapers was disingenuous.
"You hid from accountability on Covid deaths and made not a single statement on the A-level [high school exams] fiasco. But on the proms you're hard. Big guy," author Nesrine Malik tweeted at Johnson.
The "Last Night of the Proms" is a peculiarly British spectacle. The Royal Albert Hall in London is packed with a largely white audience, many draped in red, white and blue costumes, waving Union flags and singing along to patriotic anthems that recall an age of national power and glory that hasn't existed for decades.
"Rule, Britannia!," set to music in 1740, lauds the country's historic naval prowess:
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must in their turns to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
"Land of Hope and Glory," written in 1901 when the British Empire was at its peak, hails a conquering nation:
Land of hope and glory, mother of the free
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet
Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, told CNN that the patriotic songs were "blatantly racist propaganda" written to promote the British Empire -- with "Rule, Britannia!" written in the 18th century when the country was one of the biggest slave trading nations in the world.
He said he was surprised by the "furore" stirred up on social media and echoed by lawmakers including the Prime Minister.