THE UK Government last week bought a minority stake in a bankrupt satellite company for a cool £400 million. That’s the sort of idea that got Jeremy Corbyn denounced on the front page of the Daily Mail for being bonkers.

The company is called OneWeb and has its headquarters in an old BBC building in west London. Therein lies a tale about global high-tech competition which has a lot of relevance for indy Scotland.

Technically, OneWeb is “British”, but it is incorporated in the Channel Islands for tax purposes. Also, the mini-communications satellites that are OneWeb’s stock in trade are manufactured in a purpose-built factory in Florida – so don’t believe anything you read about the deal creating British high-tech jobs. The manufacturing bit is in the hands of OneWeb’s partner, the military arm of Airbus. That’s right, those pesky Europeans that Boris and Co are doing their best to dump.

So far, OneWeb has launched only a fraction of the hundreds of satellites it needs to create a global telecoms network – far less than rival SpaceX, owned by the ubiquitous Elon Musk. OneWeb launches its birds from French Guiana, using a Russian rocket. That hardly indicates we’ll see OneWeb launching from a British “spaceport” in Sutherland or Prestwick any time soon.

Why did OneWeb go bust? It got most of its initial cash from the notoriously secretive SoftBank Group. This is a Japanese investment conglomerate run by the eccentric Masayoshi Son, who has splashed hundreds of billions on his personal “300-year plan” to build a new civilisation based on artificial intelligence. As we speak, around 54% of the planet’s population can’t accesses the web, never mind AI robots. Enter Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb, whose planned low-orbit, cheap satellites are designed to supply instant access to the internet everywhere. Which is why Mr Son got out his chequebook. As he likes to say: “Whoever controls data controls the world.”

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Alas, the megalomaniac Mr Son has been signing cheques galore for every high-tech notion – daft and not so daft – on the block. Result: SoftBank’s $80 billion buying spree on high-tech has started to unravel. Investments in WeWork (which rents office space) have imploded and the initial public offering of Uber fell on its face. SoftBank is also mired in controversy because of links to the German electronics payments company Wirecard, whose boss is under arrest amid major fraud allegations. So, no more cash for OneWeb.

All successful high technology ventures eat money. Witness Musk’s electric car venture which has swallowed $20 billion in new capital investment in the past five years. Ditto OneWeb, which simply did not have enough capital and ran out of money in March.

OneWeb’s technology seems to work, but the company is – by global standards – a tiddler. Plus, it is in direct competition with Mr Musk and his private SpaceX launch company for much the same satellite market. Worse, Amazon is also considering entering the fray for low orbit (ie cheap) satellite broadband and phone coverage.

To get into high-tech investment, you need deep pockets (which the British Government has) but a lot of verve (which it hasn’t). Developing the kit and ramping up production capacity is an open-ended business. Private investors take the gamble hoping that eventually they will own a monopoly – and be able to charge monopoly prices (eg Apple and Tesla). More often, investors lose their shirt.

My bet is that Boris and Co have bought their 45% of OneWeb as a vanity project and will bail out when the going gets tough.

Why a vanity project? Brexit means the UK is losing access to the EU’s Galileo GPS positioning system, which we also helped design. Embarrassed, the Tory Government at first claimed it would build an alternative GPS system, then found out how expensive that would be (£5bn plus). As a facesaver, Boris has acquired a bit of OneWeb, claiming this can be turned into a rival for Galileo.

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HOWEVER, OneWeb is designed for web communications rather than GPS positioning. Indeed, the frequency OneWeb satellites work on is not appropriate to navigation. This problem could be fixed but requires a lot of technical and (more important) regulatory hurdles to be cleared. Assuming the rest of the world is obliging, which it won’t be.

For we are now in the era of tech wars. America’s campaign to block sales of Chinese telecoms equipment in the West has little to do with alleged spying by Beijing.

Nobody has come up with any concrete evidence that Huawei (the 5G equipment supplier in question) has actually been spying on Western nations. There is a suggestion that Huawei kit is not as secure against hacking as Western models but that’s surely a customer issue. The reality is that China’s successful drive into previously secure American dominated tech markets has given the White House apoplexy.

We know Huawei is vulnerable because it was hacked by the US National Security Agency, their equivalent of our GCHQ. The NSA hacked not only Chinese telecoms but equipment made by Cisco and Juniper, both American manufacturers.

We know this from the voluminous files leaked by former CIA operative Edward Snowden, in 2013. The opposition to Huawei from rogue, right-wing Tory backbenchers (aided, inexplicably, by SNP MPs) is about trade, not espionage. Otherwise, surely, we should ban US telecoms equipment as well.

Technology is now top of the global political agenda, with states piling in to promote their local high-tech champions. This is a rough game and requires huge investment – which is why both the US and China are good at it. Britain and (by extension) Scotland are not.

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The Tories happily let the above-mentioned SoftBank buy up Arm Holdings, arguably the UK’s most significant high-tech company, in 2016. Last year, Boris slept as a US private equity firm took over Cobham, a major UK defence company. The UK Government buying a minority stake in a tiny satellite firm does nothing to redress this loss of strategic control.

Which brings us to Scotland. Small countries can become global hi-tech leaders – witness Israel in cyber security. But Scotland spreads its talent too thinly, lacks the concentration of investment necessary to move from ideas to manufacturing, and too often lives in a fantasy world of its own making.

Sure, we may (someday) loft the odd satellite from Sutherland but there’s never going to be a big launch business here – it’s a crowded global market. Yes, we design fantastic computer games, but the real value-added lies in selling them, which we don’t do.

There’s some good fintech and biotech, but the norm is for local companies who develop successful patents to be bought out instantly by foreign interests – witness Wolfson Microelectronics.

This can change and hopefully so after independence. But it requires state backing in order to guarantee sufficient capital over long periods, and to deliver initial market demand. It requires keeping companies Scottish. Plus we need to focus effort rather than pretend Scotland can invent new hi-tech on every front.

In other words, patient capital rather than publicity stunts such as the £400m Boris just flushed down the drain on OneWeb.