In between getting back from France with my tan intact - despite the 100 franc limit on purchases of you-know-what - and setting off for Charlie Kennedy's Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth, I managed to dig out a reference which had been bugging me throughout the great fuel crisis and the NHS's red alert.

In his book The Face of Battle, defence expert John Keegan compares the military aspects (casualty rates and medical tactics included) of the great Flanders battles of Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916).

Keegan's conclusion, written in 1976, was that modern firepower is so terrible and the killing zone so psychologically stressful that we may have - accidentally, as it were - abolished battle of the kind which might have raged across central Europe had the Cold War turned hot.

I'm not sure Keegan is right - we have seen many bloody conflicts since 1976. But there has been no direct or remotely equal clash between major powers of the kind the Cold War expected for 40 years. And look what a clinical slaughter the western allies inflicted on Iraq in 1991 over, yes, petrol supplies.

I checked the reference because it kept occurring to me that we now live in such a complex, interdependent society that what we saw during the fuel blockade was not a looming return to the winter of discontent (1978-79), but just the opposite. When consumers are king they won't put up with even inconvenience for long. The casualty/inconvenience rate is too high.

Thus both sides were taken by surprise by the near-instant effect of the blockades. They realised how technologically fragile our schools, hospitals and supermarkets have become in the age of microchip surgery and just-in-time distribution networks. So the protesters backed off before things turned really nasty and the fickle media changed sides.

Yes, I know there were no instant reports of deaths among patients waiting for operations. That underlines my point. There was an unreal quality to the crisis for most of us: it was - like Kosovo - a virtual war, whipped up by media images on TV, not least by health secretary Alan Milburn playing the NHS card to help bludgeon the pickets into retreat.

Not a pretty sight. 'There has been intimidation going on. There has been illegal activity in many parts of the country, that's plain for all to see, 'the minister confidently told Radio 4's Today on the day the dispute eased. In truth there was scant evidence of that. And as you know better than I do, some NHS managers denied any crisis.

It prompted Tory leader William Hague to single out Mr Milburn for his 'disgraceful spinning'- lies, as the Daily Mail called them.

When I rang an NHS consultant friend for a reality check, she said her colleagues had seen it all as 'a bit phoney'.

'As far as we know, it was not that serious - they were just trying to whip things up. It was just politics. 'Admittedly, she added, her hospital was in a city where staff and patients could use public transport. In his once-a-day press conferences (I've never seen that before) Tony Blair kept reminding us all of the plight of those who have no choice but cars. Of course, the pickets make the same point.

Hague aides whipped up the tabloids against Milburn. For the second time this year his card has been marked as a more dangerous foe than most Cabinet members. When Tony was in trouble and needed help, Alan delivered his troops to the media battlefront. The Conservatives will not forget.

The weekend papers were full of dire predictions for Mr Blair and, more interestingly, for his stubborn chancellor, Gordon Brown, for digging in his heels against tax concessions to farmers and truckers who already do pretty well that way. One poll even put the Tories in front (by 38 to 36 per cent) for the first time in eight years. By mid-week, they had edged further ahead.

It's really too soon to say, but if the pickets try again they will have lost the element of surprise. The police will be deployed much sooner, as they were against the miners in 1984's round two. The Army will shift fuel. As for the newspapers, they were full of glee about the great taxpayers' revolt - even those papers which campaigned to cut income tax, switch to consumption taxes like petrol and spend more on the NHS. Not much consistency in the new populism.