Rachael Hatfield is not the type of stereotypical young Tory made famous by the Bullingdon Club boys who have gone on to run Britain in recent years.
Few of the 21-year-old shop worker’s friends were even aware she had an interest in politics, let alone was an active Conservative, before she was publicly named as the party’s candidate in a Highland Council by-election last year.
“The nomination papers went in and not a lot of people knew that I was political, and if I was, most people would have thought I’d be Labour or SNP or something,” she said.
“So there was a massive shock, even among my friend group, when the council note of election came out, the candidates list, and at the bottom was me, like, ‘Hi, guys’.”
More shocks were to follow for Ms Hatfield, who was runner-up in the Inverness Central contest last November.
“I actually remember when the returning officer read out the first preference votes, and I turned around to my agent and went, ‘is she actually serious?’
“As a first-timer who had no clue what she was doing for six weeks, I was pretty impressed that I had managed to make a little bit of headway.”
She added: “For me, it was more of an experience and to be able to learn a bit about what it is actually like to campaign and to put your name forward for that, particularly because I would like to stand in 2022 for the full council.”
Before politics, youth work had “always been my thing”, said the former Culloden Academy pupil, who is starting a child and youth studies degree.
“I live in a council house, I’ve grown up in a council house, I dealt with living payday to payday, I know what that is like,” she said.
“Particularly within my party, from an outsider looking in, that’s never really seen as the common view, to be the council estate kid and actually get it.
“But for me it was quite often I thought, ‘oh I wish I had done that when I was younger’, or ‘I wish I had had that support’.
“Because there were times, we all have it in life, where we do feel like we’re by ourselves, and actually to be able to say to the young people – especially care-experienced kids, because I did a lot of work with them last year – ‘I’m not a social worker, I don’t have targets to hit, I’m not somebody that’s talking to you to tick a box, I’m actually here for you’.”
Ms Hatfield added: “To actually look back and so many of them have gone to college, or so many who said, ‘my background means I can’t get a job’, and I see them now coming in and saying, ‘I got a job’, or I had one last week who said, ‘I passed my exams’.
“That satisfaction, more than anything, that I played a part in shaping that person.”
Council of Europe
As well as traditional forms of youth work, Ms Hatfield helped to pioneer a digital scheme that has been recognised by the Council of Europe, including as the UK entry in a new book on the subject.
“In 2018 we had the Year of Young People and, living in particular parts of Scotland, you can’t really get to Edinburgh very easily,” she said.
“The group of us in Highland, about 15 of us, just got really annoyed, because we were not getting the 5 o’clock train, we didn’t care if it was the Scottish Government paying for it, we weren’t getting it.
“And we decided, ‘well, let’s do something digital, because the Highlands is the size of Belgium and we can’t meet up.
“So, with support from youth workers, we created a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed, and we basically became wannabe journalists for the year.
“When the project ended, when the Year of Young People funding ended, myself and one of my colleagues went back to High Life Highland and said, ‘well, look, we can’t kill this, we’ve just done this for 18 months’.
“So they actually kept us on, paid, to run it for another year, so we trained young people and encouraged them to write mini-reports and blog posts on everything from Remembrance Sunday to what it was like to live in the boarding houses if you go to school on Skye.”
Ms Hatfield explained how her own experiences of youth work and support for youngsters had helped shape her politics.
“I was never the most social kid in school. I think I was about 15 when I joined my local youth forum, mainly just for something to do,” she said.
“And I kind of realised that I like to be able to give my opinion, or challenge a decision-maker.”
Ms Hatfield’s connections with the Conservative Party grew out of recent controversies over Highland Council cuts to pupil support assistant numbers.
“When I was in school I actually had additional support needs support, so I know the value of pupil support assistants and all of the stuff they do,” she said.
“So naturally when the budget was being slaughtered, there was a bit of a connection to it.
“For me, I remember talking to councillors and it was, ‘we have to save money and we have to do this’, and it was the Conservative group that was very much saying, ‘these are lives, these are people’.
“I really resonated with that, and it helped that I know Councillor Andrew Jarvie – I’ve known him from his youth work days.”
‘The qualities of a future politician’
It would be fair to say that Ms Hatfield’s colleagues were as impressed with her as she was with them.
Edward Mountain, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: “Having worked with Rachael on various campaigns, I know that she abounds with enthusiasm, knowledge and compassion.
“She epitomises the qualities of a future politician.”