A few pennies in the right direction won't hurt one's chances of a knighthood. But those in search of a K could do well to check out the charities closest to the hearts of politicians and royalty.
When Asil Nadir was in his prime in the late '80s, running Polly Peck, feted by the City, rubbing shoulders with government ministers, there was one thing he lacked. Despite his success in taking a fruit-packing company from obscurity to stock-market stardom, amassing a personal paper fortune along the way, he still did not have a knighthood.
In the past he had been tapped by senior Conservatives to make donations to the party. In all, he had given £440,000, but clearly it was not enough.
As befitting someone used to getting what he wanted, Nadir set out to acquire the state's second highest-ranking honour; even Nadir would acknowledge a peerage was beyond him, at least at this stage in his hitherto illustrious career.
In 1989, Nadir hired a public relations adviser to help make him Sir Asil. Based in the West End of London, the PR consultant was a one-man band, well-known within the circle of people around the higher reaches of the Conservative Party, the Carlton Club and the House of Lords. Corporate business was not his mainstay but discreet path-smoothing on behalf of well-heeled individuals was.
The public relations consultant - he wishes not to be identified but has a double-barrelled name and correspondence to prove his activities on behalf of Nadir - contacted officials at Conservative Central Office, who suggested his client make a donation to the party's Industrial Fund. Nadir had never heard of the fund and its title, with connotations of engineering and smokestacks, did not appeal to him, but if that was what was recommended, so be it. Nadir pledged £300,000 over two years to the Conservative Industrial Fund.
Nadir never got his knighthood, nor will he. Soon after the donation, his company crashed, he jumped bail on charges of stealing £30 million and fled to northern Cyprus, which is where he remains, his attempt at a knighthood now a receding memory.
The PR adviser Nadir hired remains unabashed. Shy of publicity, he is adamant he did nothing wrong. All he did for Nadir, which, he says, is what he has done for numerous other clients, was to 'take soundings' to discover what needed to be done. There was an expectation, certainly, on the part of Nadir that money given to a fund of which he had never previously heard would yield him an honour but that was all. From the Tory side, nothing, save an acknowledgment for his cash, was written down.
There were no guarantees that Nadir would get his K.
Bizarre as it now seems, given Polly Peck's collapse, and Nadir's arrest and escape, his appearance back then in the New Year's or Queen's Birthday Honours would scarcely have raised an eyebrow. At the time, Polly Peck was a great British success story, a billion-pound plus company, a possessor of the Queen's Award for Exports. Nadir was popular, generous with his fortune, donating to charities and good causes, a pillar of the community.
He was just the sort of person to receive a major honour. In time, he would surely have been awarded one. By now perhaps, if his business had not floundered, Sir Asil could even be looking forward to the ultimate accolade of a life peerage.
Nadir's calculating generosity towards the Tories would not have raised much of a rumpus. More than half the businessmen awarded knighthoods in January 1996 ran companies that made donations to the Conservative Party.
Heading the list was Graham Kirkham, the discount furniture boss who has admitted he and his family gave £4 million, following a personal visit to his Yorkshire home by the prime minister.
Stanley Kalms, the chairman of Dixons, was another on the list. Dixons gave £75,000 to the Tories in the three years preceding his award. Colin Hope, chairman of T & N and Ian Dixon, head of Willmott Dixon, a little-known private building firm, were other Tory supporters to receive knighthoods.
In none of the citations in the London Gazette which accompanied their listing was any mention made of their cash for the party in power. Kirkham's knighthood was described as 'for charitable services to the Duke of Edinburgh's Award and to the Animal Health Trust'. Kalms' honour was for services to the electrical industry, Hope's was for services to motor manufacturing and Dixon's was for services to the construction industry.
Critics homed in on Kirkham, pointing out that other, more long-term givers to the Duke of Edinburgh's Award had not been similarly honoured.
'Despite the reasons given for the knighthood, this looks like the crudest example yet of honours being given for financial services to the Tory Party,' said Labour. The furore increased when it was shown that part of Kirkham's income was paid in art and antiques, thus avoiding a substantial national insurance bill for his firm, DFS.
Undoubtedly there is a connection between giving to the Tories and receiving an honour. When a friend of Kirkham's says, 'here is a guy who has done one thing for the Tories and a million things for others,' he is being disingenuous. Figures from the left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research reveal that 52.5% of all knighthoods and peerages for services to trade and industry under John Major have gone to people in companies which gave money to the Tories. As only 6.2% of companies make such donations, says IPPR, the chances of this being a coincidence are fantastic.
Martin Linton, author of the IPPR report, Money and Votes, says, 'There is no need for a written agreement between politicians and donors. The donors need only know that people who give money to the governing party are more likely to be awarded honours.'
One man who knows all about this connection is Jeffrey Levitt, an antique toy trader recently convicted for his part in a multi-million pound fraud. His company, Mint and Boxed, was the leading dealer in antique toys. After he was rejected for the Queen's Award for Exports, he claims he paid £40,000 in two instalments to the Conservatives to secure the honour. He duly received it but within two months, in 1991, his £30 million firm went bust.
It is not fair to single out the Tories, however. As Linton makes clear, the connection is with the governing party. Labour, most famously in Harold Wilson's resignation list also handed out its fair share of titles.
How Labour would have treated Matthew Harding, the insurance multi-millionaire, Chelsea Football Club vice-chairman and donor of £1 million to Labour, were the party to have come to power when he was still alive would have been an acid test. But judging by the plaudits showered on him from Labour when he died recently, it seems highly likely that he was in line for an honour.
Much of the hostility directed towards the Tories reflects the fact they have been in power for so long. Inevitably by now, anyone who is anyone around the Tories has been honoured, to the weary cynicism of the public.
'When the honours list is full of rascals, millionaires and - er - chumps, you may be quite sure the government is dangerously ill,' wrote Arnold Bennett in 1918. He could just as well have written it today.
For Levitt, like Nadir, the Queen's Award was intended as a stepping stone to further honours. The usual chain would be Queen's Award, OBE, knighthood and for the very few, a peerage.
The latter is the one honour which is openly political. Any head of a FTSE-100 company, certainly one that is a major exporter and is not perceived to be in trouble, stands a good chance of receiving a knighthood. Whether they go beyond that, to the Lords, is another matter entirely. Peers fall into two categories: those who are honoured for their public service in the past and those whom one of the three main parties thinks has a contribution to make in the future as a working peer.
The former type is rare and probably would not apply to many business people. The latter calls upon them to make a public statement of their political allegiance, for them to become politicians, albeit part-time.
Much depends, though, on the prime minister of the day. Margaret Thatcher surrounded herself with like-minded courtiers and advisers drawn from the business community. It is a moot question whether James Hanson, Gordon White, John King and David Young would ever have got their peerages under John Major.
Generally, being successful in business or making a donation to the ruling party of the day or to an affiliated organisation, no matter how large, are not on their own enough to guarantee an honour. Equally important is community work, either in the shape of hard cash or in time given up to voluntary organisations' meetings and fund-raising or preferably both.
Certain charities carry more weight than others. Causes supported by those who decide whom to include in the honours list are the ones to choose. Mencap, the mental health charity, is said by senior Conservatives to be the charity closest to Norma Major's heart. A heavyweight donation and a prominent role in its affairs is probably as safe a bet for an honour as donating money to the Tory party.
Likewise, high profile environmentally-driven causes are surefire winners.
Anyone with a few million pounds to spare and desperate for a knighthood would be well advised to regenerate a mill complex in the North or revitalise former coalpits. And they should think community - bring in craft-workers and install a public museum. Then if they use that experience to gain a place on a well-meaning quango, the honour really cannot be far away.
Some organisations are trendier than others and attract attention in better places. Support for pet bodies of the Prince of Wales, like the Prince's Trust and Business in the Community are perhaps more likely to yield a result than the National Trust, Guide Dogs for the Blind and RNLI, which have a comfortable, yesteryear feel to them.
Business leaders who also bring in inward investment to their areas are hard for those drawing up honours lists to ignore. Paul Sykes and Eddie Healey who built the Meadowhall Centre in Sheffield have not been knighted, for example; John Hall, who built the similar Metro Centre in Newcastle, has. The difference? Hall both transformed the local football club and attracted foreign businesses to the area.
It also pays to be a large employer and to make things. Apart from the heads of their professional bodies, accountants, lawyers and management consultants by and large do not get honours. Almost as bad is being at the top of a privatised utility: the Government has put a block on privatised utility heads receiving knighthoods for fear of fuelling the fatcats row. Those that have been knighted, like Sir Desmond Pilcher, received theirs before they took charge of the utility.
Serving on a quango is the best bet of all. When Nadir ran his fruit-packing business he probably treated the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards and the Apple and Pear Research Council with ill-disguised contempt, as bodies which obstructed his money-making. They have had the last laugh. Their chairman is a knight while Nadir wasted his money trying to become one.
- Chris Blackhurst is assistant editor of the Independent on Sunday
MANAGEMENT TODAY'S TIPS FOR KNIGHTHOODS IN THE NEW YEAR'S HONOURS LIST
Michael Green, Carlton Communications A
Peter Jarvis, Whitbread A
Peter Job, Reuters A
Peter Kindersley, Dorling Kindersley A
Jeremy Lancaster, Rexam A
David Rowland, Lloyd's A
Charles Saatchi, M&C Saatchi A
George Simpson, GEC A
Derek Wanless, National Westminster A
Robert Ayling, British Airways B
Richard Budge, RJB Mining B
Ronnie Frost, Hays B
John Ritblat, British Land B
Gerry Robinson, Granada Forte B
Richard Branson, Virgin C
Chris Haskins, Northern Foods C
Robert Ogden, Ogden Group C
Alec Reed, Reed Executive C
Anita Roddick (Dame), Body Shop C
David Sainsbury, J Sainsbury C
A = a good bet under a Conservative government B = in with a chance
under the Conservatives C = in the running but unlikely under the