In 1991 British Airways put an end to its policy of donating to the Conservative Party after admitting it had “come to the view that it is not our money to hand out – it belongs to the shareholders”.
We have since grown used to the idea of non-political corporations. But sometimes politics still intrudes.
The debate over Brexit following David Cameron’s European Union deal on Friday has prompted an array of Britain’s corporate giants to nail their colours to a quasi-political mast.
More than a third of companies in the FTSE 100 – including well-known names such as Marks & Spencer, Kingfisher, Vodafone, BT and Asda – have backed the UK remaining in the European Union in a letter published in The Times .
Business figures urging Britain to leave are less numerous – but still make up a sizeable tribe. John Mills, the millionaire Labour donor and founder of the consumer products empire John Mills Limited (JML), is among the supporters of the Vote Leave campaign.
Meanwhile, Joe Foster, the co-founder of sportswear brand Reebok, and John Caudwell, the founder of retailer Phones 4u, have also backed the Brexit cause.
What has driven some leaders of corporate Britain to open their mouths? And why are other bosses still choosing to keep quiet, despite the business buzz around Brexit?
Business lobby groups say it is healthy for firms to speak out on political matters.
“Business leaders will take different positions, but they should not be afraid to stand up,” said the Institute of Directors boss Simon Walker.
“This referendum is a momentous political choice. We need to make sure it’s a well-informed one.”
Bosses have been putting their heads above the parapet because, mainly, of two factors: fears of higher business costs resulting from Brexit, and explicit encouragement from 10 Downing Street.
The 36 six FTSE 100 companies signing the letter– which said Brexit would “threaten jobs” – are mostly multinationals with significant overseas operations.
Companies such as BAE Systems, BHP Billiton, Burberry, Rolls-Royce and Centrica generate a big portion of their annual revenues in foreign markets. Meanwhile other signatories, like AstraZeneca and BP, employ most of their staff outside the UK, despite being based in Britain.
Foreign-based companies with a strong UK presence – such as Ford, General Electric, Cisco and Siemens — are also likely to face commercial pressure if Britain votes to leave.
As “In” campaigners are keen to point out, continental Europe is the UK’s main trading partner, with one in every two items shipped out of the UK each day going to the EU. One in every two items imported into the UK also come from Europe.
If Britain votes to leave on 23 June, it will trigger a two-year window of tough re-negotiations of trade treaties that the UK has signed through the EU. These could leave multinational companies worse off if the UK has to pay import and export tariffs.
The climate has also changed due to an orchestrated PR campaign by Mr Cameron encouraging business leaders to voice support for Europe in public.
Despite government aides reportedly telling bosses last year to “shut up [on Brexit] until a deal is done with the EU”, the Prime Minister signalled a change of approach in the autumn by giving chief executives in his business advisory group the green light to speak out publicly.
Despite this, a host of FTSE bosses have declared it was not their place to tell the public how to vote – a signal that not all are comfortable getting involved in political issues for fear of alienating customers.
The likes of Ladbrokes, housebuilder Persimmon, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and lender Provident Financial all said they were neutral on the issue.
“We are not getting involved in the politics of the debate – all we are interested in is the betting,” said Ladbrokes boss Jim Mullen. “I wouldn’t tell customers or colleagues what to vote, I want them to bet on it. All we are interested in is 2/5 that Britain remains in, or 7/4 that we exit.”
Jeff Fairburn, the boss of Persimmon and a business adviser to Mr Cameron, said: “We’re pretty much a domestic business. We employ a predominantly UK workforce and the majority of our materials are sourced in the UK. We as a board have decided to take a neutral stance, as we’re keen that individuals make their own decisions.”
Business picture of the day
Business picture of the day
1/31 G7 world leaders say Brexit poses a serious risk to global growth - Friday May 27
Seven leaders have warned of the risk to global economy if Britain votes to leave the European Union in a referendum next month. The UK leaving the European Union would “reverse the trend towards greater global trade and investment, and the jobs they create, and is a further serious risk to growth,” leaders said in a joint declaration at the G7 meeting in Japan.
2/31 Fast food workers demonstrate for better wages - Thursday May 26
Demonstrators calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15-dollars-per-hour protest outside of McDonald's corporate headquarters on May 25, 2016 in Oak Brook, Illinois.
3/31 Steelworkers march in London as Tata sale talks continue - Wednesday May 25
Hundreds of steelworkers from across the UK marched through Westminster to keep up pressure for government help for their industry
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
4/31 Google Paris headquarters raided as part of tax payment probe - Tuesday May 24
The message 'I'm feeling lucky' is seen on the facade of the entrance of Google's Paris headquarters on May 24, 2016 in Paris, France. Google's headquarters in Paris were raided by French investigators on Tuesday morning as part of an investigation over alleged tax fraud. Ministry of Finance is seeking €1.6 billion ($1.79 billion) in back taxes from the US Internet giant Google.
5/31 Bayer offers to buy Monsanto for $62 billion cash - Monday May 23
Monsanto DeKalb brand hybrid corn sits in the hopper of a Case IH planter in a field in Princeton, Illinois, US. Bayer, on Monday, made an unsolicited $62 billion all-cash offer to acquire Monsanto to create the world’s biggest supplier of farm chemicals and genetically modified seeds, a proposed acquisition that would be the biggest corporate deal by a German company.
6/31 Fracking approval under consideration - Friday May 20
Councillors in North Yorkshire on Friday considered whether to approve fracking in England for the first time since a ban on the technique was lifted in 2012. Campaigners say approval would set a "dangerous precedent".
7/31 'Oppenheimer Blue' diamond sells for £40m, setting new record - Thursday May 19
The world's most expensive diamond has set a new record after it was sold at auction - for more than £39 million. At 14.62 carats, the 'Oppenheimer Blue' was the largest Vivid Blue diamond ever to go under the hammer.
8/31 Mitsubishi Motors president to resign over fuel scandal - Wednesday May 19
Mitsubishi Motors President Tetsuro Aikawa will step down as the Japanese automaker looks to regroup from its widening fuel economy testing scandal with the backing of Nissan Motor. Aikawa, 62, and Executive Vice President Ryugo Nakao will leave their positions effective June 24, according to a statement Wednesday.Prior to the scandal, Mitsubishi was the sixth biggest carmaker in Japan and ranked 16 worldwide.
9/31 Harmony of the Seas: Biggest cruise ship in the world docks in Southampton - Tuesday May 17
The worlds largest cruise ship, the 361 metres long, Harmony of the Seas, arrives in port for her mayden voyage, in Southampton, Britain May 17, 2016. The 362-metre-long Harmony of the Seas cost $1 billion (£700 million) and is larger than the Eiffel Tower.
10/31 Barclays to sell secret London gold vault - Monday May 16
Barclays has sold its metals business, including a secret gold bullion vault in London which can hold up to 2,000 tonnes of gold. ICBC Standard, China’s biggest bank, expects the purchase to be completed in July. Barclays decision to exit the business comes as US and EU regulators investigate whether 10 banks, including Deutsche Bank and Barclays manipulated prices of precious metals such as silver and gold.
11/31 Bank of England warns EU referendum vote could damage UK economic growth - Thursday May 12
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned today that a majority vote to "leave" in next month's European Union referendum carried the risk of a "technical recession" for the UK. His words came as the Bank slashed its growth forecasts citing uncertainty created by next month's Brexit referendum - and warned, in addition, that a vote to leave could push up unemployment, send the pound plummeting and result in a spike in inflation.
12/31 EU blocks Three's takeover of O2 - Wednesday May 11
European Union Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager talks to the media after the EU Commission prohibited Hutchison's proposed acquisition of Telefonica UK, at the EU Commission headquarter in Brussels on May 11, 2016. The European Commission shot down Telefonica's blockbuster sale of British telecom giant O2 to Hong Kong group Hutchison on fears it would inflict higher prices on British consumer
13/31 Budweiser just renamed its beer to "America" - Tuesday May 10
The beer, formerly known as Budweiser, is going for what it calls "patriotic packaging" this summer. The brand name on most cans and bottles will read "America", and will include phrases from the Pledge of Allegiance and lyrics from The Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. “We thought nothing was more iconic than Budweiser and nothing was more iconic than America," Tosh Hall, creative director at JRK, told Fast Co Design.Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian brewing giant, filed the America label for approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and has received the go ahead for use on 12-ounce cans and bottles.
14/31 Canadian wildfires push up oil - Monday May 9
Crude rose as expanding wildfires in Canada knocked out about 1 million barrels a day of output. Futures increased as much as 2.9 per cent in New York and 2.5 per cent in London. The blaze has led to cuts equivalent to about 40 percent of Canada’s oil-sands production, based on IHS Energy estimates.
15/31 Hotel Chocolat founders make £20m each from stock market debut - Thursday May 5
Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris share £43.5m of £55.5m raised through flotation of luxury chocolate company
16/31 BHP Billiton faces £30bn compensation claim over Brazil dam disaster - Wednesday May 4
BHP Billiton and its partner Vale are facing a 155bn real (£30bn) claim from Brazilian prosecutors over a dam collapse last year at one of their iron ore mines, which killed 19 and left 700 homeless. Shares in the London-listed BHP plunged almost 10% after the charges were revealed into what is being called Brazil’s worst ever environmental disaster.
Getty Images/ Douglas Magno
17/31 Australian Craig Wright claims he is Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto - Tuesday May 3
Australian businessman Craig Wright has claimed to be the person behind “Satoshi Nakamoto”, the mysterious identity that created much of the technology behind the online cash system. Sato
18/31 Museums face ethics investigation over influence of sponsor BP - Friday April 29
Protesters carrying umbrellas take part in a flashmob performance, protesting against British Petroleum's (BP's) sponsorship of the British Museum in central London on September 13, 201
NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images
19/31 Volkswagen bosses to be paid £49m despite record losses after emissions scandal - Thursday April
Volkswagen is to pay 12 current and former managers €63.24 million (£49m) for 2015, a year of record losses for the company following its global emissions scandal.
20/31 Comcast ‘in talks to buy DreamWorks for $3bn’ - Wednesday April 27
Comcast, the parent of Universal Pictures, is in talks to acquire DreamWorks Animation for more than $3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the discussions. Buying the maker of the "Shrek" and "Kung Fu Panda" movies would bolster Comcast's collection of animated films as the largest US cable provider searches for ways to grow amid a trend of cord-cutters dropping TV for online video services like Netflix.
21/31 Scottish Power fined £18m for poor customer service - Tuesday April 26
Scottish Power has agreed to pay £18 million for failing to treat its customers fairly. The fine – of which up to £15 million will be paid to vulnerable Scottish Power customers and £3 million to charity - is the third biggest penalty given to one of the major six energy providers. It follows an investigation by the industry regulator Ofgem into the firm’s customer service.
22/31 BHS goes into administration with 11,000 jobs under threat - Monday April 25
BHS has filed for administration, putting 11,000 jobs at risk. Administrators Philip Duffy and Benjamin Wiles of Duff & Phelps said BHS had “no alternative but to put the group into administration to protect it for all creditors”. The group will continue to trade as normal while administrators look for someone to buy the chain. READ MORE BHS on the brink of collapse: everything you need to know The high street store has been unable to find £60 million in emergency funding needed to pay wages and rent and stop it going under.
23/31 New £20 note design and personality unveiled by Bank of England - Friday April 22
Artist JMW Turner and his painting The Fighting Temeraire will feature on the new design of the Bank of England's £20 note to enter circulation in 2020. The English Romantic artist was chosen from a list of public nominations - the first time the Bank has asked who should appear on a specific banknote. The note, to be made of polymer, will eventually replace the current £20 note featuring the economist Adam Smith.
The Governor and The Company of The Bank of England
24/31 Mitsubishi office raided in Japan as shares slide towards record low on fuel economy test scandal - Thursday April 21
The offices of Mitsubishi have been raided in Japan after the company admitted to falsifying fuel economy data, sending shares plummeting 35 per cent in two days. Investors watched in horror as the stock price fell a further 20 per cent on Thursday to trade around 583 yen following a raid on the Mitsubishi plant in the central Japanese city of Okazaki. Trading was halted due to the surfeit of investors trying to sell stock. More than third of the company's value evaporated in the sell-off.
25/31 Oil tumbles as Kuwait strike ends - Wednesday April 20
The oil price is in retreat this morning after Kuwaiti workers ended a three day strike. Brent crude has slumped by 2.5 per cent already, down over $1 to $42.95 per barrel, as traders anticipate more oil flowing from Kuwait again. Workers had walked out on Sunday, protesting against austerity cutbacks that will hit their wages and benefits. It’s not clear what concessions they have been handed.The strike by oil workers has slashed Kuwait's output, but the state oil firm, Kuwait Petroleum Corp, said it had managed to restore some affected production
26/31 Netflix shares nose-dive on growth and pricing fears - Tuesday April 19
Netflix shares plunged nearly 11 per cent in after-hours trading on Wall Street over fears the video streaming company’s growth is stalling as it faces an attack on its market share from Amazon. Numbers were lower than analysts, who had anticipated 580,000 in the US and 3.5 million globally, were looking for. It has 81.5 million users worldwide.The video streaming group, home to House of Cards and Marco Polo, posted a first-quarter profit of $28 million (£19.6 million), up $4 million on last year.One reasons for the slowing growth is that the company has been pushing up its charges. It is also facing tough competition from Hulu and Amazon, which unveiled a new monthly subscription pricing model yesterday.
27/31 The Treasury Brexit equation - Monday April 18
These are the equations at the heart of the Treasury’s economic model, which is designed to quantify the impact of Britain leaving the European Union. It’s this model that produced the result cited by Chancellor George Osborne today that the economy could be 6 per cent smaller in 2030 (relative to staying in the EU) and each household £4,300 worse off.
28/31 Chinese growth slides - Friday April 15
China’s economy grew at its slowest pace since 2009 in the first three months of the year, although there were signs that the world’s second-largest economy was stabilising. The so-called Dragon economy grew 6.7 per cent in the first quarter, official figures showed. That was down slightly on the previous quarter’s 6.8 per cent but in line with Beijing’s forecasts. Chinese banks issued nearly double the amount of new loans in March than in February while retail sales growth accelerated from 10.2 per cent to 10.5 per cent and industrial output advanced from 5.4 per cent to 6.8 per cent, well ahead of expectations.
Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
29/31 Fifty biggest US companies stashing $1.3trn offshore - Thursday April 14
The 50 biggest US companies, including Coca-Colam Walt Disney, Alphabet (Google) and Goldman Sachs, have more money stashed offshore than the entire GDP of Spain, Mexico or Australia, collectively keeping about $1.3t trillion (£0.91trillion) in territories where the money does not count towards US tax, according to a new report by Oxfam.
Denis Kartavenko (c)
30/31 Activists seek transparency in Panama Papers aftermath in Berlin - Wednesday April 13
Activists wearing suits throw fake money into the air while demanding greater transparency in new legislation following the ongoing Panama Papers affair on April 13, 2016 in Berlin, Germany
by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
31/31 IMF warns Brexit will create 'severe global damage' - Tuesday April 12
The IMF has slashed the UK’s growth forecasts for this year, saying uncertainty created by the Brexit referendum in June is already hurting the domestic economy. It is a major intervention from the IMF into the referendum debate. The IMF’s managing director Christine Lagarde has previously spoken about the negative economic impact of Brexit. But this is the first major warning from the Fund itself. The IMF cut its 2016 GDP growth forecast for Britain to 1.9 per cent, down from the 2.2 per cent it projected in January. After Japan, it was the joint second largest downgrade handed out to any country in the G7.
Getty Images / John Lamparski
Richard Solomons, chief executive of Intercontinental Hotels, also said his company was taking a neutral position, and played down the prospect of any significant impact on the business either way. Peter Crook, boss of Provident Financial, added that the debate was a “second-order issue for us” and had not been considered by the board.
Seven of the Prime Minister’s business advisory group are sitting out the debate, at least for now. These include Legal & General boss Nigel Wilson, Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield and Steve Varley, the UK chairman of accountancy giant EY – although this does not imply they support Brexit.
Supermarket giants Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons – among the biggest employers in the UK – are also on the sidelines.
Meanwhile Barclays bank refused to sign the letter but did say that staying in the EU would be “in the interests of customers and clients”.
Outside the corporate world, big hitters like Bank of England Governor Mark Carney are also playing down their views on the referendum.
Mr Carney said that the Bank was “not making a judgement about the potential outcome of the referendum”, adding that it was treating the vote “exactly how we treat any other political event.” But financial market are sceptical. Sterling remained down at seven-year lows against the dollar as investors shunned the pound.
The outcome of the referendum is still four months away. But it might be even longer until we know whether dabbling in politics was a wise corporate choice or not.