In a new Liberal party video, Michael Ignatieff recalls his time as a freelance writer with a particular romanticism. “I lived without a safety net,” he says, explaining that his life was “almost” like that of a “small business person.” This working-class claim from a world-renowned academic mirrors something Stephen Harper, a political player for most of his adult life, said during the 2008 election. In promising new benefits for the self-employed, Harper recalled how he had run a “medium-sized business”—a reference to his time with the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group.
Both seem eager to relate to one of the current icons of political discourse: the hard-working small business owner. The authenticity of these claims is debatable. “There are some parallels,” says Dan Kelly, a senior vice-president with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “The difference is, neither, I don’t think, has been in a situation where they’ve put their life savings into a project and that they may lose everything if that endeavour is not successful.” But the appeal is perhaps irresistible. Amid tales of greedy corporations, downsized citizens and powerless governments, the entrepreneur is a dynamic, but responsible, working-class hero.
What’s more, the values and concerns of small business owners seem to match wider desires for fiscal responsibility in the population at large, and may foretell the way forward for government. Indeed, if self-sufficiency and “living within one’s means” define public administration over the next few years, all politicians may style themselves, if only in spirit, as small business owners. “A lot of the messages that entrepreneurs have been pushing for years,” says Kelly, “are starting to resonate.”