For a Banach space $\mathfrak{X}$, let $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$ denote the Banach algebra of all continuous linear operators on $\mathfrak{X}$. First, we study the lattice of closed ideals in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{J}_p)$, where $1 \lt p \t \infty$ and $\mathfrak{J}_p$ is the $p$th James space. Our main result is that the ideal of weakly compact operators is the unique maximal ideal in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{J}_p)$. Applications of this result include the following.

(i) The Brown–McCoy radical of $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$, which by definition is the intersection of all maximal ideals in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$, cannot be turned into an operator ideal. This implies that there is no ‘Brown–McCoy’ analogue of Pietsch’s construction of the operator ideal of inessential operators from the Jacobson radical of $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})/\mathcal{A}(\mathfrak{X})$.

(ii) For each natural number $n$ and each $n$-tuple $(m_1,\dots,m_n)$ in $\{k^2\mid k\in\mathbb{N}\}\cup\{\infty\}$, there is a Banach space $\mathfrak{X}$ such that $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$ has exactly $n$ maximal ideals, and these maximal ideals have codimensions $m_1,\dots,m_n$ in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$, respectively; the Banach space $\mathfrak{X}$ is a finite direct sum of James spaces and $\ell_p$-spaces.

Second, building on the work of Gowers and Maurey, we obtain further examples of Banach spaces $\mathfrak{X}$ such that all the maximal ideals in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$ can be classified. We show that the ideal of strictly singular operators is the unique maximal ideal in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{X})$ for each hereditarily indecomposable Banach space $\mathfrak{X}$, and we prove that there are $2^{2^{\aleph_0}}$ distinct maximal ideals in $\mathcal{B}(\mathfrak{G})$, where $\mathfrak{G}$ is the Banach space constructed by Gowers to solve Banach’s hyperplane problem.

AMS 2000 Mathematics subject classification: Primary 47D30; 47D50; 46H10; 16D30