Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
My mother once worked for a Mallorcan rejoneador. I don’t know much about it, but I know that they’re the ones who lead the show on horseback: the full-on bullfighter knights, rather than the lance-jabbing picadors. And that, then, in 1972, the sport was big game on the island, and elsewhere in Spain. It was history, art, money, and – as Hemingway described the surrounding celebrations, half a century earlier – Fiesta:
‘Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square. It burst and there was a grey ball of smoke high up above the Theatre Gayarre, across on the other side of the plaza. The ball of smoke hung in the sky like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket came up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight. […] By the time the second rocket had burst there were so many people in the arcade, that had been empty a minute before, that the waiter, holding the bottle high up over his head, could hardly get through the crowd to our table.’
The last bullfight in Catalonia took place five years ago this month. Sometime critics of the pastime include such luminaries as Pope Pius V, and Robert Evans, a former Labour MEP, but animal rights’ groups have revitalised the cause within Europe and South America over recent decades. And, in February, following an 150,000-signature petition, the Balearic parliament began a process to become the third Spanish region to ban the practice.
Of course, Spain’s highly-devolved administrative structure – each of its seventeen 1978-designated ‘autonomous communities’ has its own tripartite division of powers; certain towns have held bullfighting referenda – makes it hard to assess the overall situation. Polling doesn’t help much, either. Figures suggest a loss of interest and pride in the tradition: Ipsos found in January that only 19 per cent of Spaniards “support it”, and El Pais has reported that “since 2007, the number of bullfights held in Spain has dropped from 953, to 398 in 2014”, although this seems not necessarily to have translated into public desire for a ban.
But what can we take from this apparent shift in attitude towards something most of us haven’t experienced? Well, growing political resistance to bullfighting has, by many, been correlated with increased left-wing power: the “result has been not just a promise to clean up Spanish politics, but also the biggest-ever threat to bullfighting across Spain”. And conservatism – with its affection for the past, and attachment to tradition – is often blamed for sticking to the status quo, in the face of potential improvement.
Yes, that accusation might be unfair. There are decent arguments to reinforce Edmund Burke’s claim that change is ‘novelty’, while reform – the classic conservative preference – is an ‘application of a remedy to [a] grievance’. But that returns us to discussion of conservatism’s essence, and I remain pretty convinced it doesn’t have one. It’s situational and slowly adaptive. Conservatives are generally positive about human nature, and trusting of beneficial-seeming institutions that work – whatever they and that might be.
And that’s all very nice, if we’re talking about capitalism, constitutional monarchy, or how to keep score in a tennis match. Even when we’re losing, most of us on the centre right think of those as decently-functioning, well-established institutional systems. What about the traditions that make us uneasy, however? Things that are functional, for sure, but we’re uncertain if we want them to be. The practices we’ve started to struggle to call ‘beneficial’, or – as faithful opponents of moral relativism – we realise we never should have.
Regardless of Britain’s easy pluralism, few of us would consider female circumcision a ‘tradition’ worth upholding. But bullfighting? Is its historic role – which led to it being protectively ‘declared of Spanish cultural heritage’ in 2013 – the only reason we might condone it? And is that fear of relativism the strongest reason we might not? Or are there better reasons? We know the bull will die, after all (indulto, the bovine form of gladiatorial manumission, is famously rare). Although, when death comes, it should be fast and neat: a single stab through the aorta. It’s preceded by gradual exhaustion, and the picador’s barbed jabs – so the entirety isn’t over immediately, like hounds on a fox – yet, done well, the kill is professionally clinical.
‘…and for just an instant he and the bull were one, Romero way out over the bull, the right arm extended high up to where the hilt of the sword had gone in between the bull’s shoulders. […] ‘There he goes,’ Bill said. Romero was close enough so the bull could see him. His hand still up, he spoke to the bull. The bull gathered himself, then his head went forward and he went over slowly, then all over, suddenly, four feet in the air.’
Were we to continue with the hunting comparison, we might note that humans kill bulls intentionally, in the name of entertainment, whereas hounds kills foxes instinctively – coordinated by humans, ok, but with the aim, at least in part, of protecting farmers’ fields. Is that an important distinction?
If we stop trying to gauge right and wrong, however, and focus on consequences alone, bullfighting gains attraction. In March, the National Association of Bullfighting Organisers claimed that a nationwide ban could lose Spain over 3.5 billion euros, annually, and some “199,000 jobs and 57,000 positions directly linked to bullfighting”. And that estimate wouldn’t have accounted for the waiter serving the bar-owner’s sherry in the decorated plaza, or the makers and sellers of the street-party rockets. Or the specially-bred bulls’ existential dependence on the fight. Or the resultant pleasure of the crowds, and the satisfaction of the fighters (maybe a little diminished in the case of the 13 who died in 2015). Or the great novels by great guys like Hemingway, whose Fiesta speaks – in its scenes of aficion, played out against unhappy Brett’s goading of poor old Jake – of what might prosaically be described as deep cultural significance.
We’ve no time to debate animal rights, now. Or sport. Or culture. Or whatever the thing might be. Such examples, however, where consequentialism tempts us away from a thorough consideration of dubious traditions, pose particular problems for conservatives. Call it abstruse – or bull, if you like – but, with no overriding value system or ideology to which to turn for answers, more thinking seems required, not less.